Easing the Transition from Nomadic Life to City Life

Question: For very long periods, we Kalmyks were nomadic people and led a nomadic way of life on the steppes. We lived in kibitkas (large ox carts with tents on them) and never knew about what cities are. And now life has suddenly changed: our moving here to cities in standard flats. We see that we’ve broken away nature, and it has affected our consciousness, our perception, our emotions, because we see that the relationships between relatives has become weaker. We suddenly don’t understand each other very well because we’ve got television, other distractions, and many such kind of things. Can Buddhism answer this question?

As nomads going from pasture to pasture on the steppes, the grasslands, living in these kibitkas, these tents on oxcarts, as you pointed out, the family and the community that traveled together had a very close relationship with each other, a close relationship with nature and with the animals. And so the values that were necessary for that type of life emphasized harmony, that everybody had to work together and understand the responsibilities that were necessary for life. Now, in your settled way of life, of course this is very different.

In Buddhism, however, we do have various ways of helping to overcome the shortcomings that could arise with the type of lives that we lead now. There’s a great deal of emphasis on appreciating the interdependence that we have with each other. It might not be as obvious as when we are nomads on the steppe. But one exercise that we have is to look at everything in our home and to think of all the work that went into producing this and all the people that were involved in its production, going all the way back to the elements of nature. Even the food – not only who grew it, but who transported it? Who built the roads? Who built the trucks that transported it? Where did the metal come from for the trucks? Where did the rubber, where did the petroleum come from? If we cook with gas or electricity, where did that come from? All the people involved with that. And in this way, we appreciate the fact that we’re totally dependent on the work of an unbelievable amount of others.

Also, the way that we act affects the environment. This is becoming more and more obvious with global warming. It affects the wildlife. Fish are becoming more and more rare. The only difference here between understanding this when we are traveling as a group of nomads and when we are living our city life, our settled life here, is that, on the steppe, this interdependence is much more obvious, it’s much more immediate, so it’s easier to understand. Now, this interdependence is still… the fact is still true; it’s just that it’s not so obvious. We really have to analyze and think about it. So on the basis of analysis, thought, then we can develop this sense of responsibility that is necessary for the survival of the whole planet in harmony, not just the small unit traveling on the steppe.

I think what’s really quite wonderful and helpful is that here in Kalmykia you have this tradition of the nomads on the steppe, and so the fact that you actually survived as a people over such a long period of difficult history demonstrates that you are a people that really know how to work together and to live together for the benefit of the whole society. This gives a sense of self-worth of the whole society and of being a member of that type of society with this type of heritage.

This brings another aspect of ethical self-discipline, which is consideration of the effect of our behavior on those that we respect. In other words, if we are a member, let’s say, of Kalmyk society, then if I act in a criminal way, in a very selfish, horrible way, how does that reflect on Kalmyk people in general? It gives a very bad impression of Kalmyks. And so, because I want to avoid that, because I have such a wonderful feeling and pride (in a positive sense) about my heritage, then of course I don’t want to do something that will cause people to have a bad impression of it. This, then, is something that can also help us to work together in more harmony and try to work into the modern world in a successful way all together.

Of course, we can expand this beyond just Kalmykia. I’m a great fan of science fiction, and so I think in terms of other types of life forms, intelligent life forms, on other planets in the universe. And what would they think of human beings, this life form, if we destroy our planet because of our selfishness? They would think we’re really a lower life form. And so we need to show that, as human beings, we can manage not to destroy our world but somehow resolve our differences and live in harmony. Although that’s science fiction, nevertheless it can be a helpful way of thinking.