Thursday, August 16, 2012

The universe doesn't revolve around humans

One of the many things I love about Buddhism is the fact that it doesn't maintain that the world revolves around humans. There are far too many people--either encultured to this view, or just plain old narcissistic--who believe that the world was created for them. I'm no ecologist or social scientist, but I believe that one of the reasons our world is on the brink of so many crises is because humans are anthropo-centered, meaning they think that the world revolves around humans.

People think that not only do others see the world they way they do--a gross cultural fallacy--but that their brains organize the world is the way that the world actually is. What they commonly overlook is that perception is interpretation. We organize how we see the world according to a host of influencing factors,  including, but not limited to, culture, language, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. All of these determine, in their own way, how we experience the world.

And they're all relative.

I sincerely doubt that my world is the same as a Golden Retriever's, let alone a Buddha's. But most people are under the naive assumption that reality is somehow "out there" just waiting for us to perceive it. But that's far from the truth. Modern science is realizing what Buddhists and other contemplative traditions have know for millenia.

The Buddha taught that ignorance colors how we experience the world, and so our perception is clouded by a scrim that obscures true reality. And yet, most people treat the world like a diaper, assuming that their ego-, human-centered point of view is actually the way things are.

The other day a friend of mine was telling me a story about how when he was a kid, he and his friends were lighting some firecrackers. They walked to the bay to experiment whether a firework would explode under water. After a few tries, they proved their hypothesis correct when they saw a flash under water, followed by a big bubble. They, being adolescents, cheered and gave each other high fives, when out of nowhere, a dead fish floated to the surface.

"It was hilarious," my friend said. I didn't laugh, or even respond for that matter, because I didn't find anything funny about a fish pointlessly dying.

Each of us represented a different worldview. To him, like most to people, animals and the entire planet were made for us to use. This is even perpetuated by religious and political factions throughout the world.  Buddhists, on the other hand, don't see things this way.

According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, the entire universe is one elegantly balanced symphony of interrelated and interpenetrating relationships. From the perspective of the Absolute, a fish is just as marvelous as a human; a blade of grass just as important and worthy of respect as a treasure chest filled with gold.

But that's not how most people see things. They think that people are better than frogs and fish--and implicitly, rich and famous people are the most important of all. And that's what's really dangerous and scary, the unstated view that some people are better than others, for it easily serves as fertilizer for prejudice, racism, injustice, and ultimately, tyranny.

We as a species need to radically shift our perspectives, to cut through all of these views and see clearly. This is the aim of Buddhism. I don't know what society needs.

I try my hardest to be the best Bodhisattva, father, husband, and priest, I can be. We do what we can, when we can. Sometimes that means not laughing at a crude joke, other times it means teaching the Dharma. In the meantime, the best advice I can give to combat such ignorance is, "Only go straight, don't know."

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Bluedharma.


  1. I enjoyed this post. I particularly like the idea of the universe as "one elegantly balanced symphony of...relationships." I believe this to be true...and oddly helpful and consoling when I get off balance.