Thought Provoking and Elusive Worldviews that Run Us

“Enso” By Daishin

A worldview is that which bridges the way we think and what we believe with the way that we live.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, our worldviews run our lives.  They are the lenses through which we see the world.  Sometimes we don’t realize that we are looking at the world through a particular set of lenses, and we assume that everyone sees the same things that we do.  When I first went to a Zen Center, I felt funny bowing to a statue of a Buddha.  I could not name why at the time.  But when I think about it today, I realize that my unconscious worldview was at work.  I was taught as a child never to bow to idols.  In the book of Exodus God kills several hundred Israelites because they made a golden calf and worshipped it.  Would I be subject to the same fate bowing to Buddha?  Would God punish me for being at a Zen Center.  It sounds funny to me when I think of this today, but this was my worldview at play.

All of us have some basic worldviews in common if we are living in the United States in the 21st century, yet we often act as though we are all unique in our outlooks.  Because we live in a culture that promotes individualism over and above group cohesiveness, it’s often very difficult for us to consider ways in which we are similar.  But as my teacher would remind me, when everyone tries to look different from each other, they all look the same.  In contrast, when everyone looks the same (such as when we see a group of priests wearing the same garb), their individual personalities come through.  However, because of our promotion of the individual, we often don’t appreciate conformity.

To a certain extent, we are all unique, but our worldviews are what bind us together as a culture and allow us to live with purpose and meaning, however we may define those in our own lives.  By gaining awareness of our shared worldviews, we can get a sense of how we are linked together and seek out other worldviews that may be equally valuable to us and our society.

If we want to know what our worldview is, we can look at our actions and their results (karma).  Our world at present is the result of our thoughts and actions.  Thus, we can trace the state of our world back to our thoughts.  The Buddha said, “Our life is shaped by our mind:  we become what we think” (Dhammapada).  Another way to say this is that the world has its origins or creation in our thoughts about it.  This view doesn’t preclude ideas around a creator God, nor ideas about the absence of a Creator.  It’s just saying that our thoughts create the world around us.  If this is true, that our thoughts create our world, then what do we think about the world we live in?  What is our worldview?

Knowing our worldview or worldviews, bringing it (or them) into conscious light, is a foundation to exploring the Bodhisattva Precepts because it/they effect(s) the way that we practice the Precepts.  If we understand the Buddhist worldview, and live from it, that will also affect how we practice the Precepts.  But often we try to practice the Precepts from within a worldview that doesn’t align well with the Precepts.  We may not always be conscious about which worldview we are living out of.  But by becoming more conscious of our worldviews, we can become clearer about ways of thinking and acting that may be more or less helpful for us as we navigate the Precepts. 

Here, I’ll talk about two prominent worldviews that profoundly shape the way that we live and organize ourselves in relation to the world, especially in the United States.  The first worldview comes from our religious tradition.  The second comes from our scientific community.  We’ll compare these two worldviews with the Buddhist worldview and look at some possible implications for practicing the Bodhisattva Precepts.

I want to make it clear that it’s not my aim to prove that the Buddhist Worldview is better than the others, but simply to offer another lens with which to understand and interpret reality, and also to help bring the Bodhisattva Precepts into focus.  I want to acknowledge that, by separating these three Worldviews out as I have, that I am oversimplifying them and not doing them justice.  My hope in doing it this way, however, is to encourage students to approach the Bodhisattva Precepts with eyes wide open, becoming aware of some of their own implicit or unconscious biases.

The Religious Worldview

The religious tradition which most of us have been brought up sees the world in a different way than the world the Buddha saw upon his Enlightenment.  What is the world we were brought up in according to our religious tradition?  Most of us see the world through a Christian lens that places humans at the center of a world that was created by God.  A higher being that is called “God” initially gave life to the universe, to all the galaxies, stars, elements, and all the living creatures, including us humans.  God commands us to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”  Gen 1:28. While there are many interpretations of this verse that bring light to a more eco-friendly worldview, many see it as justification to do what we want with the Earth.

A common interpretation is that human beings are authorized by a Divine Creator to consider themselves at the center of the Universe and to use it as they see fit, even to subdue it.  This view of human-centeredness is known as “anthropocentrism.”  The story of creation in the Bible centers human life, as opposed to plant life, or marine life.  If you look around at the world today, has that view not affected the way that we see ourselves in relation to the cosmos?  Do we not center human life above all else?  Consider our feeble responses to the extinction of non-human species taking place today.  While my description of our Religious Worldview is a bit simplistic, if we remain unconscious about it, we’ll find ourselves acting from it.

Furthermore, predominant views of an afterlife – living with God and our friends and relatives in a heaven far removed from the troubles of the Earth – often surpasses care and concern for this life, including the Earth and it’s other than human creatures.

The Religious Worldview shapes the way that we think about the Bodhisattva Precepts.  We might initially see them as a means to escape to a better place or state of mind – heaven or nirvana.  We might think that in receiving them we are “saved.”  We might misunderstand the first precept, not taking life, as referring to not taking human life.  We might also mistakenly see these Precepts as the Buddhist equivalent to the Ten Commandments and think of them in terms of right and wrong, do and don’t.  But the Bodhisattva Precepts are much more subtle than this black and white thinking.

While many of us may intellectually deny the efficacity of the Religious Worldview in their personal lives by stating, “I’m not religious,” or “I’m not Christian,” or “I’m atheist,” I would argue that this view is part of our religious and cultural DNA, and it nonetheless shapes how we think and live in the world.  It shapes the way we see the planet and the creatures that live within it.  I’d further suggest that if we want to practice the Bodhisattva Precepts, .  We need to watch for the tendency to evaluate the Bodhisattva Precepts as we would the Ten Commandments, ticking them off one-by-one in a dualistic fashion.  This is not the spirit of the Bodhisattva Precepts.

The Scientific Worldview

While the Scientific Worldview was the worldview initially spawned by 17th century scientists like Isaac Newton, many of these scientists, including Newton, were deeply religious.  Yet, in the 21st century a great rift between science and religion has developed, and these two views are often falsely perceived as contradictory.  We believe that the Religious Worldview denies the Scientific Worldview and that the Scientific Worldview denies the Religious Worldview.  We often mistakenly believe we need to choose between one or the other.  Thus, while I present them as two separate categories, they are both integral to our cultural DNA and effect the way we think about the world.  The scientific worldview (like the Religious) affects the way we think about and live in the world even if we consider ourselves uninformed about scientific methods or theories.

The Scientific Worldview sees the world as a machine or an immense clock.  We can tinker with it and figure it out like we would the engine of a car, or the gears in a watch.  If something goes wrong with it, we can fix it.  We see the material world as objects for our use, and don’t give second thought to the consequences of human endeavors, such as the desire for profit, on the rest of the planet.  We often see people who are poor, or those in 3rd world countries also as objects to be used for profit by the 1st world countries.  Slave labor is an example of seeing certain human beings as objects to be exploited.  The destruction of rainforests for cow pasture is another example where the natural world is seen, similar to the Religious Worldview, as ours to subdue.

We often default to the Scientific Worldview when it comes to larger world problems like climate change or poverty.  We wonder what we can do to “fix” it, to tinker with it so it will “work” correctly.  We may even place the blame for our problems on those people we exploit, suggesting that they work harder.  We assume that we can use the same mind that created the problem to fix the problem.  This is the view that relies on technology to solve all our issues.

Scientists have spent ages (especially the last four centuries) empirically observing the known universe and have discovered that there are patterns that we can identify, and in this sense, it is sometimes seen as contradicting the creation mythology of the Bible.  Because of observable patterns we can predict the movement of the stars, the planets, and the weather.  Natural laws can be known – at 32 degrees water freezes.  The qualities of energy can be determined by the equation E=MC2

Once we can know how the world works, from this worldview, we can then use it as we see fit.  This is a utilitarian perspective.  We think in terms of how natural resources can benefit us, and not in terms of things having an inherent direction in and of themselves.  In many ways, the utilitarian perspective mirrors the Religious Worldview that gives credence to the “subdue the Earth” command found in Genesis. We see things in terms of objects for our use and consumption.  Trees are considered good for lumber.  Prairie is considered good for farmland.  Chickens are good for eating.  It’s not that we shouldn’t use anything that the Earth provides.  The problem is that we over consume to the point of self-destruction.  The clear-cutting of the rainforests for grazing land or to plant monocultures destroys the biodiversity in a region and compromises the planets ability to generate oxygen.

The Scientific Worldview sees body and mind, human and universe, spirit and matter, as separate entities.  It is a dualistic view that can be summarized in the famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.”  When we think, “I think, therefore I am,” we naturally hold what we think superior to what we feel, or our emotions.  Is this the way we sometimes see the world?

Whether or not we intellectually agree with or understand the Scientific Worldview as I’ve painted it, it still affects our meditation practice.  People wrestle with letting go of thoughts because they have been taught to associate thoughts with being alive.  We have been taught to associate being alive with doing something, not with doing nothing, or with being.  To let go of thinking would be to let go of existence, and this is frightening.  To let go of doing and “just sit” conjures up fears around being unproductive and therefore valueless, affirming the utilitarian view of life. 

We also dichotomize meditation practice into “spiritual” and “secular” practices, as if one needs to choose one side or the other. The Buddhist worldview makes no such distinctions, however.  Life is whole and can’t be separated, though the mind mistakenly divides things up.

The premise of many contemporary theologians is that these two worldviews – those of religion and science – have caused the massive degradation of the planet that we are witnessing today.  These worldviews are our shared views.  These are my views.  These are your views.  These are often unconscious biases that we’ve inherited from our ancestors and our culture.  We need to bring them to light and own them.  They worked quite well for some time.  But do these worldviews help us today? 

While I have presented aspects of these two worldviews that affect us all on an unconscious level, I want to acknowledge that they also contain within them great wisdom and inspiration for living our lives, and so I don’t suggest we throw them away, for in many ways they augment the Buddhist Worldview.  Without science and technology, we’d still be living in caves.  Religion is responsible for creating great institutions like hospitals for the purpose of healing.  With the telescope we’ve come to discover that our universe is filled with trillions of galaxies.  As great as the discoveries of science have been, and as inspiring as our Religious Worldview has been over the centuries, I’m pointing out a few of the limitations of these worldviews in modern times for the purposes of bringing them into conscious light.  In the light of consciousness we can determine what we want to keep and what we want to discard.  We can also begin to see how these worldviews have run our life unconsciously until now. 

One of the problems we face in critiquing our worldviews is an assumption that says that our worldview cannot be wrong.  I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama saying to scientists that if they discover something about the world that is different from the way Buddhism sees things, then Buddhism needs to change or adapt to the new view.  The central Buddhist idea that all things are impermanent aids in this mental flexibility, and our ability to drop understandings of the world that are harmful or dysfunctional is indispensable for creating healthy relationships.

The Buddhist Worldview

Go Like the Clouds, Run Like Water

“Go Like Clouds, Run Like Water” by Daishin

The Buddhist Worldview, like the Religious and Scientific, has both positive and negative dimensions.  While I have been discussing some of the implicit biases we carry as a result of the Scientific and Religious Worldviews, here, I’ll bring out the positive aspects of the Buddhist Worldview – those aspects that we would do well to focus on, that are, perhaps, already being focused on by those who are attracted to Buddhism.

My suggestion is not that we completely replace one worldview with another, yet that is what I often see people new to Buddhism unconsciously trying to do.  In other words, without knowing it people often come to Buddhism with some measure of dissatisfaction in the Religious Worldview – even if that dissatisfaction is unconscious – and want to replace it with the Buddhist Worldview.  I’m trying to suggest here that this approach erases both the positive and negative elements of the Religious Worldview, and it also erases negative aspects of the Buddhist Worldview.  So, we need to be clear about what we’re doing.  By bringing forward some of the more negative aspects of the Religious and Scientific Worldviews, we’re shining the light on what needs to go, and at the same time recognizing that we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We don’t need to replace Christianity with Buddhism, for example.  That’s a bit of an overkill.  To become a Buddhist by receiving the Bodhisattva Precepts is also not the aim.  The aim of receiving the Bodhisattva Precepts is to make a public commitment to practicing them.  However, we often desire feeling a part of something greater than ourselves and want to belong.  This is where zazen becomes a paramount practice.  Sitting and studying the Dharma is not for the sake of becoming something but for realizing that belonging is our birthright.  It’s like the Buddhist monk who is asked by an American that comes to study in the temple for a few months, “How do I become a member?”  The monk replies, “How does a cloud become a member of the sky?”  Like the cloud, our very existence is enough.  Zazen helps us to see this and to affirm it.

With regards to the Scientific Worldview, there are many aspects of modern science that are highly compatible with the Buddhist Worldview, however, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve highlighted those aspects that see the universe as a machine, and we are all guilty of doing this on an unconscious level.  This aspect of the Scientific Worldview is incompatible with the Buddhist Worldview that sees the world in terms of relationality and wholeness.  However, theories like the Big Bang or, discoveries within the field of quantum physics, augment Buddhist ideas of inter-relatedness and no separate self in a profound way.

Undoubtedly, the Buddhist Worldview is beginning to infiltrate our modern way of thinking.  Most of us, for example, can at least intellectually grasp that all things are inter-related.  Buddhism takes this idea further and says that everything is intimately connected like a jeweled net.  Imagine, for a moment, a net that has jewels at each knot.  Each jewel reflects within it all the other jewels in the net.  In the same way we also contain within us the entire universe.  There is no hierarchy of being, as in the religious view, above, with God at the top, then angels, then humans, then animals, then plants.  Nor is it a state where everything is equal, as in the democratic view of the world.  Rather, each creature contains all the rest.

Furthermore, unlike the scientific view that separates mind from body, the Buddhist view sees mind not only throughout the physical body, but throughout nature and the universe as well.  Even plants and stars have mind within them.

Is this how we see the world, though? 

It’s a lot more difficult to imagine this world because the other two worldviews are running us unconsciously.  But through training in the Bodhisattva Precepts, through meditation practice that helps us uncover our biases, and through ongoing intellectual study that looks critically at our worldviews, we can do it.  Those that work for causes around ecological or social injustices would benefit greatly from understanding more deeply that the man who cuts the Amazonian tree is connected to the conscientious American who drives a Prius.  Or, the parent that looks deeply at their child can see that the child gives birth to the parent.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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