Thoreau, the dharma and the dark age

In the view of Buddhism, Hinduism and also the ancient Greeks, among others, we live in a dark age, or what in the East is called the Kali yuga, the decadent age: and it is true.

In the dark age, greed is pervasive, human bonds of love, community, sharing, caring, solidarity and cooperation are strained, broken and eroded. Fear and mistrust rules, while simple love and reciprocity are dwarved by a narrnewss of short-sighted self-interest. The human heart chokes on the pain of alienation, and it is difficult to get anything worthwhile accomplished, for everyone wants to gain, but few want to give: and so, basic human cooperation breaks down, and we are imprisoned in a straight-jacket of selfish concerns, hunkered in our bunkers, cocooning within ourselves and our own little enclave.

No one wants want to risk losing, so no one wants to give: hence, all meaningful cooperation is thwarted, if not destroyed. With everyone looking out for themselves, we all lose. Moreover, genuine appreciation is dulled if not completely lacking, so that personal gain is all that can be seen, and this poverty consciousness reinforces the poverty of our relations, of our interior lives, and of our hearts.

We live as paupers, and think we will be happy and rich in joy if we persist in our failed efforts to win richness through self-centred isolationism and narrow economic individualism. In this time of greed and self-centred attitudes, ignorance reigns, for ignorance is always the predominant state of the mind when love is eclipsed by selfish behaviour and attitudes. Thus darkness piles upon darkness, and our lives grow more impoverished by the day. Or so it is, if we do not break the cycle, and come to our senses.

`In this decadent age, no matter what you do, it`s not appreciated.`
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche,
Tibetan Buddhist saint and mediation master,
after whom yoda was modelled

`I sometimes despair of getting anything accomplished by the help of my fellow men. Their minds would first have to be placed in a sort of powerful vice, to squeeze their old ideas out of them.`
– Henry David Thoreau

`It is never to late to give up our bad habits.`
– Thoreau

Fortunately, even in this present dark age, not everyone is steeped in greed and a narrow self-centredness. Many are motivated by love, many by the pursuit of truth, many by justice, compassion or other high ideals. And even those lost temporarily in greed and narrowness, can come to their senses any time. It is the hope of the future – the only hope of the future for this world – that more people return to that basic common sense of the good heart, of community and of working together for the common good. The crises we have created for ourselves ensures that we will: we will be forced to help one another, or perish – that is the severity of the ecological crisis we have created, and also the economic and political turmoil that we have sown for ourselves, or allowed to be sown in our names. When shit hits the fan, to put it bluntly, more people will realize the truth of what John Donne, Martin Luther King Jr. and Benjamin Franklin said: `No man is an island,` and, `We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately. This lesson will be writ large before our eyes, very shortly I am afraid, due to our own neglect in dealing with certain political-economic and ecological trends and issues. The awakening will happen, whether by peaceful opening of the eyes, or by painful shock.

In the meantime, let us take joy in what good does exist in the world, in those around us, and in our own hearts and lives. Appreciation, love, generosity, kindness, compassion and cooperation will heal this world, and even more immediately, will enrich our lives immeasurably.

We did not survive and thrive through all these millennia because we have opposable thumbs, nor simply due to our ability to communicate through language: above all, it was and is imagination, intelligence, and cooperation that helped us through every difficult time. Therefore, let us cultivate a spirit of appreciation, of love, of cooperation, and of solidarity, even in the face of difficulties – especially in the face of difficulties. These are the greatest strengths of human kind. These things, and not money, status, outward power, possessions or fame, are our own greatest of strengths. Without them, we are lost: impoverished, alienated, and bewildered. With them, our lives are rich, and our future bright indeed.

Neitzsche was right about one thing at least: that which does not kill you makes you stronger – so long as your spirit is not broken. As the I Ching states, if the spirit is broken, all is lost. Whatever you do, keep your heart alive. Nourish your spirit. Celebrate every triumph, however great or small.

Take satisfaction in what good you have been able to accomplish in this world, however modest that may be. Rejoice in every act of kindness, whether done by yourself or others. Take joy in little things: a cup of tea, the morning sunshine, the moonlight on a lake, the song of a passing bird, the dew of the morning grass, the sharing of bread or wine, or the smile of a loved one – or a stranger.

Rejoice in the good that is present, for it is everywhere: and noticing, appreciating, relishing and rejoicing in that basic, simple goodness, will rekindle the flame of your heart, feed your soul, and revive your spirit, no matter how weary you may feel, or how discouraged.

Keep a good heart, do the best you can, take joy in whatever goodness you see or can accomplish, and always, always, maintain perspective, and keep your spirit alive.

There is nothing wrong with wanting happiness for oneself. But wanting our own happiness at another`s expense, is simply wrong. It is unethical, unkind, ignoble and base, it is also foolish. As the Dalai Lama said, `If you`re going to be selfish, be selfish intelligently – be kind.` Greed and selfishness do us little good, and create waves of sour experience for others – waves which will assuredly return to us in time, if not immediately. Far more can be accomplished, and far more benefit created for both ourselves and others, through generosity as opposed to miserliness and greed. Far more can be gained and attained through sharing and solidarity than through narrow self-centredness or crass economic individualism.

Here are some basic life lessons, for all of us slow learners:

1) Together we are far stronger than we are alone.

2) You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar: kindness, respect, appreciation and goodwill benefits all – ourselves as well as others.

3) All things and all beings are interconnected and interdependent: our own well-being is bound up with that of others.

4) What goes around comes around. Do not think that your actions will have no consequences. Even if others are forgiving, karma will bite you on the ass if negative karma is what you sow.
Jesus said it as well: `As you so, so shall you reap.` Kindness and generosity, sharing and cooperation, therefore, are simply a matter of basic intelligence. It is only the ignorant who behave otherwise. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Whatever our errors, or those of others, forgive them: resentment hurts and hardens the heart; and when the heart becomes calloused, all life and joy is shut out. Soften. Be like water, as the Taoists say: do not bash yourself needlessly against the obstacles the life presents – flow around them. There is always a way. Life is infinite: it is our minds which obstruct us, and no other. Make peace with the past. Whatever mistakes we have made, remember, `Your nature is Buddha nature – there is no other.` The same goes for every living being. Or if that sounds too good to be true, think of this:

`Be gentle with yourself. If you can be gentle with yourself, you can be gentle with others.` – Lama Yeshe

`Trust yourself. It is extremely important that you trust yourself. Don`t be afraid of yourself. You can trust yourself. Trust that your natural intelligence is unfolding itself.`
– Chogyam Trungpa

Again, remember always, it is a round world: whatever you put out there, it will come back to you sooner or later – guaranteed. Harbour no resentments. Do no harm. Sow only kindness and the clarity of truth, as best you can perceive it. Learn from experience, then let go of the past. Cut off negative people when you have to, but do keep a spirit of love in your heart. If the heart is eclipsed, we are, for the time being at least, the living dead. Drop the past and open to the present. It is a wide-open vista of endless possibilities.

I will end this little reflection with my favorourite quote from my favourite author:

`There is more day yet to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.`
– Henry David Thoreau


June 8, 2011


Further reading:

The Simian Paradox – Scientific American

The Chalice and the Blade – Rianne Eisler

The Ecology of Freedom – Murray Bookchin

The Perennial Philosophy – Aldous Huxley

The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell

The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell


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