Who’s Responsible?

Who’s Responsible?

by Jeffrey Brooks

History is not your boss. There may be trends beyond our control but our response to them will be within our control.

Western thought assumes a flow of history. In Christian teaching there is development to an end. There will be final war and final judgment. Western philosophy is thick with world-historical forces, teleology, the inevitable resolution of class conflict in a worker’s paradise, the end of history in liberal democracy, the return of the church or the caliphate.

Buddhism explains why this is not so. There is a cycle of events in Buddhism. Great epochs arise, endure, decline and dissolve again and again. They occur on a cosmic scale, in the course of a lifetime, and in every moment.

In each era, in each life, in each moment, there may be rise or fall. These changes in our condition depend on what we have done and on what we do.

So if we live in a decadent time we can still strive to be great, to serve and to be happy.

If we live in a time when decency is derided and virtue is crushed we do not need to be discouraged by this. We persist in learning what to do and then doing it. We will set an example, plant a seed, bring some happiness into the world, and experience the result of our goodness ourselves.

People may condescend to us because of our gender, or mock us because of our race, but we are not defined by our race or our gender or by other people’s treatment of us. We can respond to this as we choose, and persevere in equanimity and in decency despite the difficulty.

There are modern writers on Buddhism who talk about a “collective karma” of countries, races, and groups. I have never seen this phrase used in classical Buddhism in this sense. Each of us has our own karma. We will each respond to our experience uniquely, based on our habits and knowledge and strength.

Even if our economy surges and everyone gets their own giant house, cars and pool, each person will experience this uniquely.

Even if our city is destroyed, each of us still will have our own experience of this and will reap the result in our own way.

Buddhism teaches that there is a rise and fall of fortune for each of us and that it depends on our actions in the context of every cause and condition in our universe. The way out of the instability is to do right, see deeply, act kindly and so enter into the endless peace and freedom and virtuous action of Buddhahood. We can all do it.

This means we are free to live fearlessly and righteously in accord with or despite what swirls around us in the street, in the media, in the impressions we receive from our moment in history.

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