How big is your world? By this, I do not mean the Planet Earth on which we all live and spin through Space. I mean your mental and spiritual horizons: How far do they extend, and how many people and things do they encompass?
By study, observation, and reflection, we may broaden our horizons, mentally, just by traveling, and coming into contact with, and living among, people of different nationalities, races, and cultures. Today, more than ever before, with jet travel within the reach of most people in the developed world, our opportunities for such broadening of the mind are immense.
Until recently, because of the centuries of Western colonization of countries in other parts of the world, Western influence was predominant. But, might there not be a turning of the tide, as other countries complete the assimilation of Western culture, and begin to export their own cultural influences to the West? Will the West―can the West―remain as it is, impervious to and unchanged by other cultural influences? To do so, it would have to make a very determined stand, which in itself would mean recognizing other influences, and thus being influenced. Even during war, there is exchange.
The fact that English has become the main international language makes of it a conduit for the infiltration of non-Western ideas; in opening up the world, the West has opened itself up to many things of other cultures that might otherwise have remained restricted to those cultures; because of it, for just one example, the literature—both religious and secular—of other cultures has been made available to the English speaking world, without ordinary people needing to learn the languages it was originally written in. Is this not a great advantage? (It also greatly diminishes any excuses that we might make for not knowing about other religions and cultures, and for ignorantly thinking that our religion and culture is and must be the best merely because it is ours). Moreover, with an international language like English, we can go more or less anywhere, and stand a good chance of finding someone with whom we can speak English.
We all have world views―that is, ways of looking at and considering the world―but while some of us have broad and wide world views, the world views of others are narrow and cramped. Many years ago, I worked in a factory in England with people whose views of foreigners were appallingly narrow and prejudiced; none of them, at that time, had traveled abroad, and some of them had not been very far from their home town, and this was probably the reason for their small mindedness; if they had been abroad they might have understood, while there, that they were foreigners too; on the other hand, though, they might not have done this and continued to think of the people in those lands as foreigners and themselves as not. It is hard for some people to open their eyes and minds.
When I began to travel in other countries, and live with people of different nationalities, races, and religions, I came to see that, though there are, of course, differences between people, the things we have in common―the similarities, the humanness in us all―far outweigh the differences; had I not been able to see this, my mind would never have permitted me to travel so freely, and live with so many people other than those of my own nationality and race. As it is, for many years, I have given blood regularly, in whatever country I happen to be in when it's time to give again. My blood probably flows now in the veins of people of many different nationalities and races; hopefully, those who received the blood I donated didn't object to receiving the blood of a 'foreigner. My world view has expanded, and I do not think in terms of just one country, or one nationality, and although I do recognize that there are various skin-colors in the world, we are all members of the human race. The time is hopefully near when people will no longer be required to state their race in answer to questions on forms for immigration purposes or such like, or could write with immunity: Human.
Of course, my understanding of Dharma―as far as that extends―has helped me tremendously with this, for it reveals how 'all beings are friends in suffering'―and not just human beings, either, but all beings, from the tiniest to the greatest. This is a stupendous thing to contemplate. In fact, because it is so all embracing, excluding nothing and nobody, it is the most complete world view imaginable; but to live by it is quite another thing. For most of us it is, and will remain for a very long time, an ideal and not an actuality―an ideal to work towards, like a tiny spark of light in a dark night. A Buddha is someone who has realized that ideal, and has made it His own, someone who has left behind the narrow idea of self and, identifying Himself with all, has become one with all.
Compare and contrast this with the world view of Thomas Aquinas, one of the main theological pillars of the Catholic Church, who is regarded as a saint. He stated (but we must realize that it was his own subjective opinion, and might even call it his own delusion): "Next to contemplating God, the greatest pleasure of the blessed ones in Heaven will be to watch the tortures of those burning in Hell." And an earlier Church Father, Augustine of Hippo (also called 'Saint'), after his conversion and baptism into Christianity, wrote: "Wondrous depth of Thy words, whose surface, behold! is before us, inviting to little ones; yet are they a wondrous depth, O my god, a wondrous depth! It is awful to look therein; yes ... an awfulness of honor, and a trembling of love. Thine enemies thereof [referring to pagans, or non-Christians], I hate vehemently; oh, that Thou wouldst slay them with Thy two-edged sword that they might no longer be enemies to it; for so do I love to have them slain!" This was written by a follower of someone who prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies even while He was hanging on the cross!
On the other hand, the greatest Christian of them all—Francis of Assisi—prayed thus:
"LORD, make me an instrument of Thy Peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
"O DIVINE MASTER grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life".
Whether we are followers of the Christian religion or not, we cannot fail to admire the magnanimity―the Dharma―of this.
In spite of the prevalence of war, the exploitation of the poor by the rich (or of some of the poor by some of the rich, not all), in spite of famine and man-made conditions that result in the death-by-starvation and disease of millions, in spite of religious fanaticism and its concomitant excesses like terrorism and 'holy war', we are, I am sure, making progress and moving in the right direction, even if only slowly, painfully, and unsteadily. The picture is not completely bleak. The United Nations Organization, although it is bureaucratically top-heavy and largely effete, with its officials getting huge salaries for doing very little, is a product of our times, and we should see it in a positive light despite all its deficiencies. For, just as it arose from the ruins of The League of Nations, if it collapses, in turn, something else will arise, phoenix-like, from its ashes, and will hopefully be better able to deal with the problems that will exist then, as now. We soon forget the past, and find it hard to imagine what the world was like without such an international body, (before which legitimate complaints could be brought with some hope of redress), when empires were won by the sword and the gun, and retained by the winners for as long as they could, and when international opinion counted for little, and could be safely flouted. The cynics in our midst will say that nothing much has changed, and that international opinion still counts for little. But it counted for far less before, and half a loaf is always better than none.
We should not be too starry eyed, and expect all problems to be resolved immediately merely because there is such a body as the U. N., for the problems it must deal with are not created by controllable and programmable machines, but by governments and states composed of people who are imperfect, and the U. N. itself is made up of the same imperfect species. Therefore, we must be prepared to stumble along, make mistakes and sacrifices, and suffer, as we have done for as long as man has been man. But it would help if we could get rid of the debilitating idea that man is a degenerate creature, a sinner who went wrong a long time ago, and has suffered as a result ever since. ("Human history is not a decline from primeval perfection, as in Genesis, but a slow and painful ascent."*) If we did, we would take heart from the incredible success we have had so far, in the face of terrible obstacles, and face the future with greater fortitude.
Although Man is capable of boundless stupidity and evil, at the same time he is also capable of great goodness and wisdom, and we must not forget this, as it is our greatest treasure; if we ignore it, we might easily give up in despair and despondency. And it is the task of those who have perceived it to help others to discover it in themselves, difficult and thankless though this task often is.
We are all participants in the great drama of human history and unfoldment, not merely spectators. But to participate consciously requires interest, love, the ability to stand back and look at things in perspective, and see beyond the narrow confines and concerns of self. And an understanding of the past is essential for an understanding of the present and a vision of the future; for the present is the sum total of everything that has gone before and this, in turn, conditions the future. Therefore, pause awhile, and without haste for yet more progress, look back, and review the vast panorama of history, flinching not from the savagery, crime, and bloodshed, for these are ineradicable parts of it all, and remind us where we have been, and how. They will also hold many lessons for us, and help us see what things we should try to avoid. Although it is said that history repeats itself, and mankind remakes the mistakes of the past, it must not necessarily be so; history stands there, gone but still here, ready for us to extract knowledge and wisdom from its experience. It is because we learn and benefit so much from the past that we do not need to 'invent the wheel' in every generation, but merely take up where others left off.
Scattered throughout the pages of history are countless figures from whom we can draw inspiration for our own living―sages, saints, heroes, statesmen, philosophers, inventors, discoverers, artists, poets, scientists and others who, though long dead, still live for us in the things they left behind. Through the records that remain of their teachings, ideas, and discoveries, we still have contact with them, though their bones might have turned to dust. Looking back, therefore, and perceiving these benefactors of humanity standing out like beacons against the backdrop of the far more numerous indifferent, thoughtless, or stupid people that populate and overpopulate every age, we experience a great surge of admiration and gratitude, and a determination to contribute a little of one's own to the further unfoldment of man's collective fortunes. And so, with the past lovers of humanity behind us, reminding us, and spurring us on, we turn again to face the future, with courage and love.
If we begin to think about our identity, our inquiry will lead us, before long, to the realization that who and what we are is intimately bound up with, and connected to others who, likewise, are parts of something greater than us and they; indeed we will not have gone far before it dawns on us that, as separate individuals, complete and sufficient in ourselves, we simply do not exist. Our world view then must necessarily expand, in order for us to perceive how we fit into the overall picture. In a logical sequence, love, compassion, and morality follow on from understanding life as it is.
*From "The Lessons of History," by Will Durant.