Western Society from a Buddhist Perspective

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As far as religion is concerned, I always make clear to you Westerners that it’s better to keep your own traditions. Of course out of millions of people there are some individuals, like you, who… Well, I think some of you in the sixties were like hippies – a little bit confused about your own minds and having a bit of a rebellious attitude towards the existing situation, including towards your Western religious faiths, isn’t it? So you went here and there and here and there, as if you didn’t have any direction, and eventually you found some new ideas in Buddhism. So okay, if you really feel this is something useful, something helpful, then that’s okay.

Like the Tibetans – more than 99% are Buddhist, but at the same time there are Muslims among the Tibetans, and I think since the twentieth century some Christians are also there. So it is possible. Among Westerners with a Judeo-Christian sort of background – and to some extent with Islam as well – some of them find their own tradition not very effective, and they choose to be nonbelievers. Being a little bit restless on the mental level, they find some benefit in the Buddhist teachings about training their minds, and so they decide to follow that. That’s okay. That’s an individual’s right.


As a Buddhist, or even any sort of person, we need to be realistic. An unrealistic approach brings disaster, so we must be realistic. I think the very purpose of education is to help us reduce the gap between appearances and reality. So many unrealistic feelings develop because of the gap between appearances and reality. We have human intelligence, and so, yes, we need education. The very purpose of education is that our minds should be wise, should be reasonable, should be realistic. The real purpose of education is that we should be realistic about all of our life, all our goals. Even with destructive goals, like the terrorists – in order to achieve their goals, their methods must be realistic; otherwise they might die before their goal is achieved. Any human action must be realistic.

Now there’s an economic crisis. There was too much speculation without knowing exactly what would happen and then pretending things are okay. Sometimes these people knew what was going on, but they deliberately showed a different picture to the public. That’s immoral. So it was out of ignorance and out of greed. According to some of my friends, that was part of the cause of the global economic crisis. If people had told the truth openly and transparently right from the beginning, then when that final announcement came, the public wouldn’t have been so shocked. They should have made it very clear right from the beginning. But now things are very difficult, aren’t they? So we must be realistic about all of our life. And then also of course in international relations, and also in environmental issues, or in any field – in any and every way, we need to be realistic.

Modern education has one thing lacking, and that’s teachings about warm-heartedness. But now there are some institutions, some universities, actually carrying out some research work into this. They’ve carried out experiments with students: If they have some short meditation to train their minds about compassion as part of their daily study, it can make a difference after eight weeks of training. So anyway that’s one aspect.


Compared with animals and other forms of life, we are very fortunate to have human bodies, because we have this marvelous brain – we have the ability to develop infinite altruism and we have the ability to investigate ultimate reality. Any form of life with a less sophisticated brain than humans have has no ability to do that. All ordinary sentient beings are slaves of ignorance. Only the human brain has the ability to know the faults of this ignorance. So therefore the human body is something precious, and so we need to protect this life. For a thousand years, all we could do was to pray to some of these deities that are supposed to bless us with longevity. But now we have modern medicine and exercise, including yoga exercise, and this also is very useful to protect this precious body, isn’t it? It’s like that.


Of course my knowledge is very limited in this field. Firstly, Karl Marx’s economic theory – I was very much attracted toward the point in his economic theory concerning the equal distribution of wealth. That’s moral ethics; whereas capitalism doesn’t talk about that, just how to make profit. Therefore, as far as socioeconomic theory is concerned, I am still a Marxist.

The so-called “socialism” that was practiced in the former Soviet Union and in the early period of modern China – and in some other socialist countries – their economies eventually faced stagnation. That’s a fact. So Western capitalism is a more dynamic force as far as economic development is concerned. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China sacrificed its Marxist economic practice and voluntarily followed capitalism. Now, I don’t think one can blame the capitalist system for all the difficulties China is facing today. I think a free country can follow capitalism without those problems, but for that at the same time you need an independent judiciary and a free press. If the media follows a principal of transparency, the elected government can be held accountable. So with capitalism, we need other methods to make society more balanced.

Now China is just capitalism – no independent judiciary, no free press, no accountability. The judiciary is controlled by the party, the economy is controlled by the party, and the press is controlled by followers of the party. So that’s the main reason why China is facing problems now. There’s immense corruption, and there’s no proper method to control these things. Poor people who are involved in corruption are given death sentences, but people in higher positions are above the law. So that’s the reason.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the former Eastern European countries got their freedom – for example, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I was the first visitor, I think, to the Czech Republic, on the invitation of President Havel, and then I also visited the Baltic states, and also Hungary and Bulgaria. I’ve never been to Romania, but I visited the former Yugoslavia – Kosovo, Croatia and Slovenia. When I first visited the Czech Republic, I said, “Now is the right time to carry out more research work. Take the good parts of the socialist system, take the good parts of capitalism, and it might be possible to synthesize a new economic system.” So I said this, but those just became empty words. But of course I have no knowledge of economics.

Materialistic Lifestyles

I briefly mentioned Western lifestyles yesterday. And it’s not just Western – there’s a more materialistic society now in India too, isn’t there, a more materialistic community? They seek their enjoyment through the windows of the senses – drama, movies, music, good food, good smells, and good physical sensations, including sex. So they are just seeking satisfaction through external means, through the sensory level.

The ultimate source of inner satisfaction, however, is through training our minds, not through relying on these sensory experiences. Our contaminated tainted actions need to stop. Their contamination is not due to the environment; our actions become contaminated because of wrong views or ignorance. Therefore in order to stop the contaminated karma that causes our problems, firstly we must remove the ignorance here in our heads. That’s the Buddhist way. And as I mentioned earlier, academic centers are now more and more feeling the importance of taking care of our emotions, of our minds. This is a very healthy sign.

Nevertheless, it’s still better to be able to say, “My life is very nice.” Buddhism also mentions that and for this, there are the four excellent factors for a good life (phun-tshogs sde-bzhi) (1) higher rebirth, (2) pursuit of resources, (3) teachings, and (4) liberation. The first two factors of excellence are a higher rebirth or just a human rebirth, and then there are the necessities – wealth, property, companions, etc. for achieving a happy life, a good life. You need facilities, and for that you need money. And so money is mentioned there. But then in the long run, our goal should be nirvana – a permanent cessation of this ignorance and these destructive emotions. So that’s the permanent solution, and for that we need the practice of Dharma.

The Gap between the Rich and Poor

And then another problem is the gap between the rich and poor. This is a very serious matter. When I was in Washington at a big public gathering, I said, “This is the capital of the richest country, but in the suburbs in Washington there are many poor people and poor families. This is not only morally wrong, but also the source of many problems.” Like the September 11th events – this also is connected with that huge gap. The Arab world remains poor and their natural resources are exploited to the maximum by the West, and so the public there sometimes feels it’s unfair.

These are very, very complicated situations. I think the Buddhist community must also take some action. At least try to take care of the people in your neighborhood; mentally give them some hope, some self-confidence.

I often tell my Indian friends, those of the so-called “low caste,” the followers of Dr. Ambedkar – many of them are Buddhists – I am always telling them that this gap between rich and poor must change. Instead of slogans and displays of frustration, the poorer sections of the people must build self-confidence that they are the same. I tell them, “Brahma created these four castes from his four heads. But it’s the same Brahma, isn’t it?” So we must all be equal.

I always insist on education for the poorer section of the people. The richer section, wealthier section, needs to provide them with facilities – education, training, and equipment – to enable them to improve their living standards. I’ve also expressed this in Africa on a few occasions. It’s very difficult for the southern world. The northern world usually has surpluses. The southerners don’t even have the basic necessities. But all these people are the same human brothers and sisters.

Human Rights

Another thing I wanted to share with you is that we put too much emphasis on the importance of secondary level things – nationality, religious faith, caste – these sorts of things. In order to bring some benefit at the secondary level, we’re forgetting the basic human level. That is a problem. I think, unfortunately, like at the Copenhagen Summit 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the important nations take more interest about their national interests rather than global interests; so that’s why we are facing many unnecessary problems.

We must make every effort to educate people that we are the same human beings. Then our number one priority should be basic human rights. The concerns of different nations and religious communities are on the secondary level. Like with China – I am always telling people, “China, no matter how powerful, is still part of the world. So in the future, China will have to go along with world trends.” Like that.

We must consider these now nearly seven billion human beings on this planet just like one entity, one big human family. I think that’s something we really need. But we can’t do it through preaching, but only through education and by using common sense. That’s very important.


When we talk about a happy humanity, a peaceful humanity, a more compassionate humanity, we must make an effort to look for the real answer to these terrorists and to the use of military force. In today’s reality, everything is interdependent. Europe’s economy and Europe’s future depends on Asia and the Middle East. America likewise. And also China’s future depends on the rest of Asia and the rest of the world. That’s the reality. So according to that reality, we can’t make a demarcation and say, “This is an enemy. This is a friend.” There is no solid basis for the demarcation of enemies and allies. So according to today’s reality, we must create the feeling of a big “We” rather than “we” and “they.”

In ancient times, a thousand years ago, this solid basis of “we” and “they” was there. And on that basis, according to that reality, the destruction of your enemy – “they” – was your victory. So the concept of war is part of human history. But now, today, the reality of the world is completely new, so we must consider every part of the world as part of “We.” We have to take serious concern about their well-being. There’s no room for violence in a world in which we must all live together, interdependent on one another.