Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society

For twelve Sundays Nalandabodhi Connecticut is offering a book discussion group on H. H. Karmapa’s book Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. Below is a summary of the fourth chapter and a list of contemplations related to this chapter that will be the basis of our online discussion of this chapter on Sunday June 14th at 10:30 a.m. For more information, go to Events on this website.

Chapter 4 – Equality and Diversity

We are living in an historical moment when there is great awareness of human diversity and a much broader commitment to human equality than in the past. To nurture this positive development we need to remain clear on the actual foundation of our equality, so that we do not mistake the diversity differences as an indication of inequality.

The bases of our equality are: 1) By virtue of having a mind or awareness, all sentient beings are equal in our capacity to experience pain and joy, in our pervasive longing to avoid suffering and to be happy, 2) All human beings are equal in our capacity to cultivate inner conditions on which our happiness depends, as individuals and also as a society, and 3) We are all equal in depending upon the earth to sustain us.

Contemplation: Which foundation for equality speaks to you? (1) all sentient beings are equal in terms of their longing to experience joy and avoid suffering; (2) all human beings are equal in terms of their capacity to cultivate inner qualities of empathy wisdom, and compassion; (3) all sentient beings are equal in terms of depending on the earth to sustain us.

Equality is not sameness. Tibetan example of trees – at the level of roots we are the same, but branches have great variety. Our many differences in lifestyles, opinions, gender ID, racial characteristics, etc. do not make us more or less human.

 Contemplation: What do you experience as the benefits of diversity (cultural assumptions, religious views, philosophies, lifestyles, opinions, sex and gender identity, race)

The Marketing of “Equality”

The ideal of equality may be broadly accepted, but we do not act and feel equal. There is a great deal of real and perceived inequality. Globalism and consumerism uses equality as a marketing tool to stimulate a sense of personal inequality which can be overcome only by buying more goods.

Global economy sends the message that we are inadequate and incomplete – we need to acquire things to make up for that – leads to constant comparisons with others and the need to keep up. Not knowing the basis of our true worth leaves us impoverished.

What is Development, Really?

We have a culture of seeing some communities of people as “backwards”, in need of development, etc.

What is meant by development? Commonly meant as material development, more consumer goods, etc. This can lead to people becoming “low wage slaves” and the loss of their original human culture. But development could mean having better access to other conditions for happiness and well-being: Development of inner conditions for growth as a human being.

But this is tricky – other worthwhile resources are education, healthcare, etc. As these are adopted, traditions and cultural knowledge begin to dwindle. There is no easy answer! So big questions: How can we establish social equality without erasing diversity? How can we embrace our differences with mutual respect and harmony?

Contemplation: HHK says, “We need to think carefully about how to manage obvious differences. How can we establish social equality (education, medical knowledge, racial and gender equality) without erasing diversity (religious, sustainable ecosystems, biodiversity)? How can we embrace our differences with mutual respect and harmony?”

Difference is not Deficiency

Distinguishing between being equal and being the same: Reducing the ideal of human equality to the idea of sameness results in great harm, especially when the ideal to be aspired to is determined by the self-interests of a few.

Example of extreme plastic surgery, with South Korean women becoming visibly identical in pursuit of a commercially driven vision of beauty.

Our idea of equality must go deeper: not in how we look, but in who we are. We are equal in our shared human condition and in the latent nobility of heart that lies within each of us.

The Value of Diversity

The view of interdependence teaches us to value biodiversity in the natural world. Likewise it can help us value human diversity. It can lead us to appreciate the benefits and beauty of our differences.

One particularly difficult area for appreciation of differences is religion. However, since humans are very diverse in predispositions and needs, we  benefit greatly from having a wide variety of spiritual paths available to us. The idea that one religion is “right” and all the others are inferior or mistaken is unsustainable and not useful. The point for any religion is to suit and benefit individuals.

Religions have the common goal to alleviate suffering and help us find happiness and live meaningful lives.

A Century to Share

In the past century our ability to share information, ideas and goods and our ability to travel have increased dramatically. Much more cross-cultural and cross-religion sharing and communication than in the past. However, with such sharing and contact, both parties are impacted and changed in some ways … both positive and negative consequences.

“Each culture and religion is no longer the property of any single community but is available to all who live on this planet to learn from.”

Given this new reality, the appropriate attitude is to learn to value one another and recognize diversity as highly productive and beneficial. Let go of privileging our own views and deem those of others as inferior. However, wrongly approached, this can easily lead to cultural appropriation and spiritual materialism, not genuine human sharing. Encounters with other cultures and religions must challenge us on some level in order for them to be meaningful. We need to really listen to other traditions, taking care not to project onto them our own meanings and assumptions.

“Authentic sharing means being open to the possibility that the other will change you.”

Our valuing of diversity needs to be grounded in an awareness of our basic equality … on the level of common sense, common values, and common human needs and aspirations.

Sharing is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good or ill. E.g. airplanes can be used to transport people to desired destinations or to drop bombs. Like airplanes, sharing has sharply increased in the past 100 years or so. The focus of sharing needs to be learning to understand one another and appreciate our great diversity.

Contemplation: When we encounter views that are different from our own (including traditions from other cultures here and around the world) what are the best ways to interact, listen and communicate?

The Consequences of Ignorance

All too often the above is not how we respond to sharing. Much of the time we react out of ignorance.

“Into the vacuum created by our basic ignorance about others, we heap our own projections. We take isolated details and flesh them out into full-blown fictions, or we uncritically adopt them from the media or society. When we do not recognize or acknowledge our own ignorance about others, we believe in these fictions.”

Likewise, we take one aspect of a person and think we have seen them in their totality.

Also, we ascribe a false reality to something that has merely been imputed … a person’s name, for example. Or a person’s race or religion.

“We fail to recognize when we are operating on the level of words and labels and not the actual people or things themselves.” Also, “Ignorance denies our own role in producing ideas that we have about others. Ignorance ignores the many interconnections that link us to others and the way those interconnections shape or views of one another.”

“We focus on fictions we ourselves have written and think we are reading the truth.”

This kind of ignorance easily gives rise to fear, and fear is easily manipulated. E.g. fear of Muslims as of 9/11, fear of Middle-Easterners as of Boston Marathon bombing, etc., etc.

“If we analyze this confusion whereby we take projections and appearances to be reality, and we ask ourselves how we became so caught up in labels and identities, we can trace the problem back to a basic problem of selfishness> we cling to our judgements and impressions simply because they are our own. This is a form of arrogance.”

“Rather than simply taking our limited views as the truth, we could ask how things appear to others. There is a great value of seeing through the eyes of others as well as our own.”

Contemplation: How do we become caught up in labels, identities and judgements with respect to diverse groups (including foreigners, evangelists, ethnic group, and political affiliation)? How can we let go of these mistaken judgments?

Hierarchy and Power

We take external appearances as a sign of inherent difference. This includes social hierarchies that we believe are natural and fixed, rather than based on social construction. However, in hierarchies, those at the top depend on those below and vice versa. Nobody is powerless. Those with power are neither inherently superior nor inherently inferior to others. Equal does not depend on social order, but on the reality that we are all endowed with the potential for goodness and the capacity to feel pain and joy.

We can mistake a privileged place in a hierarchy as an opportunity to further self-interest. This is an abuse of hierarchy and is counter-productive. We all must understand the interdependent nature of hierarchies and the importance of responsibility and concern for others. Hierarchies are social orders we create for a specific purpose. When the hierarchy outlasts its purpose we must reorganize ourselves.

Social Inequality is Not Natural

What is the basis of our society today? Our society today is not based on the yearning we each have for happiness, which is equal in all of us.

Rather it is based on who has access to power and who has access to power through wealth. Access to education is crucial, as that determines our economic opportunities. Money is made a condition of access to healthcare and to other means of eliminating our suffering and securing happiness. Therefore there is lots of inequality.

We feel this situation is the fault of the government or big corporations, etc., but this is false. Those in power depend upon those below them. We all have the responsibility to not support this kind of hierarchy … vote against them, don’t buy their products, don’t go along with their policies. (Resist and educate)

Hierarchies and inequalities are human constructs, and can change over time. In ancient history physical strength was important, but now empathy, openness, caring and gentleness are more needed … a shift from generally masculine toward qualities that are more feminine. But this is not a zero-sum game, where for one to win the other must lose.

In the end, our efforts to extend equal rights to all in our global society will succeed or fail based on whether or not we can connect with the real ground of our equality. When we lose sight of our common humanity … our common needs and interests … then diversity looks like an obstacle to equality.

“Interdependence offers a way to see instead the great value in diversity and to recognize that equality does not require uniformity.”

“We also need to learn new habits of connecting from the heart across differences. To that end, our basic capacity for empathy is a powerful resource we can develop to connect on that deeper level.”

Contemplation: When we recognize that hierarchy is driving inequality (wealth, education, healthcare, environment, race, sex and gender) what actions can we take to alleviate this situation?

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