But this morning I realized, and I can’t imagine that I haven’t had this thought previously, that while that little boy was free of all the “negative” learned experience that would later come to him from family, friends, and the culture, that little boy was full of self ... not in the sense of a developed ego but from a primal sense. Indeed, when a baby is born, it is primarily an instrument of self; it’s prime purpose is self-preservation. This is a biological and evolutionary imperative. It cannot be escaped or ignored. It just is.
That being the case, I understood for the first time why Zen master Bankei (1622-1693) taught that one must return to the unborn Buddha mind. But we are born; that is an inescapable fact. We cannot return to our unborn state because we live now surrounded by whatever culture we live in. That is our paradise lost. This is where we must learn to exist and be at peace. The question is how.
From both the Buddha’s teaching and Bankei’s, it is clear that our true Buddha nature co-exists when we are born with this primal need for self-preservation. In my book, The Self in No Self, I talk about the Four Basic Needs ,,, food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security, which we can observe in babies. Having these needs is not in conflict with ones true Buddha nature. Likewise we have primal emotions such as fear, panic, and aggression. These emotions are not in conflict with feeling at one with all things because of our true Buddha nature. Because we are humans, not animals, and are capable of unconditional love and compassion.
But our ego-mind and our culture cleverly and opportunistically latch on to these primal needs and emotions and turn them into an all-consuming presence, the “I,” that comes to dominate all of our thoughts and actions. As I say in my book, Raising a Happy Child, “those basic emotions have morphed and expanded exponentially as human culture has become increasingly urbanized and less communal.”
Whether this happens as a child begins to absorb learned experience depends on the culture in which it lives. For those children born into communal societies, for example most aboriginal societies (which evolved because banding together was the best form of defense and self-preservation), they quickly learn that all their work is for the good of the whole. They are not individuals with individual rights, they are part of the whole and their rights are communal rights. In these societies, individual members still developed their skills, whether as a warrior or as a cook, but the merit that was received from excellence, while resting partially in the person, was transferred to the communal group. And from what I gather, people in these societies were largely free of the types of neurosis that cause our samsara.
We also know that the learned experience of an individual being focused either on offering others joy or on what his needs are is a characteristic which is capable of change. Whether one looks at the experience of Westerners walking the Buddhist path, or one looks at the experience of China as it transforms from a communal to a socialist/capitalist society, we see that the mind is capable of forming new paths to perceive the place of the individual in the broader society. It is all a function of what we are exposed to. The thinking mind is a malleable thing.
And so, as primitive societies developed historically and started making “progress” in the things they could produce and the means of production and as they grew in size, the more differentiated roles that people took on led to the concept of individual property, and with that inevitably followed a distinction between haves and have-nots. With the advent of the industrial revolution and since, the effect of industrial and technological progress has increased the dominance of the “I” and the inequality among people to the point that there is virtually no sense of community left. There is some sense of nationalism left, but that does not translate into caring for the wellbeing of others. The concept of the social contract is viewed as a foreign dangerous concept by vast numbers of people.
What impact do these primal needs and emotions have on a desire for world peace? Even in primitive communal societies, this feeling of not-two had its limits at the boundary of the communal group. Here the primal forces of fear and aggression asserted themselves. One communal group feared others. In time different communal groups who felt they had interests and background in common would band together into larger tribes to present a more formidable force against outside threats, but always there was this fear and aggression against the “other.” And those feelings were well-founded in the realities of their life. Modern international relations is but an update and expansion on this basic pattern of alliances, deterrence, and when it is deemed advantageous or necessary, war.
In modern times, there were those world leaders who felt we had to set up a structure to insure, both after WWI and WWII, that the world never experienced such devastating destruction again. Both the failed League of Nations and the United Nations were born with this goal in mind, at least in the hearts of the principle proponents. Other leaders unfortunately saw how such structures could be turned to their own country’s advantage.
But regardless, it was doomed to failure (the U.N. obviously exists, but it has not succeeded in its most important goal, to prevent war and genocide) because such a structure and goal cannot be superimposed on a world which is based on totally opposite values. Instead, such a world must rise from the bottom up. It must begin with the way in which each child is taught to view himself and his place in the world, (see my book, Raising a Happy Child). And from there it can expand outward. Although since we are not starting with a blank slate and the power of the current culture and our ego-minds is strong, it is unlikely that many people would entertain such a change of direction for their children.
There has been much discussion over the decades and centuries of whether man’s propensity for fear and insecurity, violence and war as opposed to peace, is a function of human nature or nurture. The point of this post is to see how both come into play and increase our awareness.
Fear, panic, and aggression are primal human emotions, as indeed they are in the animal world. But whether they are muted and transformed into a desire to offer others joy, or whether they are magnified to the point where we all feel that we must compete and succeed or else drown, where there is nothing more important that the “I,” is a function of the culture and the families in which we are raised. And as I’ve written in an earlier post, insecurity is the basis for all conflict, whether within the family, the society, or the world.
It is a testament to our true Buddha nature that even in our contemporary culture it is without question possible to raise children to be good practicing Buddhists who follow the Five Precepts. Indeed, it is possible for the tortured souls of adults to be transformed back to the state of their true Buddha natures given the proper teaching and support.
It is wise to be aware of the forces allied against our walking the path. But it also important to know that with discipline and faith, it is possible to walk the Buddhist path and incorporate the Five Precepts into our daily lives.