Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness
by Robert Thurman
“Buddha’s vision was for an entirely new kind of civilisation, one based on the assumption of the possibility of enlightenment for all citizens. He placed the highest value on individual freedom, since individual development is the highest purpose of the entire society. As the individuals evolve toward buddhahood, so does the society evolve toward a buddhaland. It is a process that has been unfolding since the 5th century B.C.E., and we can see the roots the Buddha put down sprouting in our own time. …
Buddha abandoned all sides of the many conflicts of the day, his royal privilege, and became a mendicant. He entered a spiritual family, leaving behind his racial and national identity. He became propertyless, abandoning the competition for wealth and ownership. He became viewless, abandoning all ideological identity and all dogmatism. He became selfless, abandoning all personal clamour for recognition. He even let go of life, abandoning all violent claims for air, food, water, and other valuable resources. Thus abandoning all ordinary roles, he created a new role: that of the person who lives in the world but not of the world, who connects himself and therefore others to a transcendent reality that puts the demands of relative reality into the context of transcendence.
Radical individualism, which makes the individual’s need to attain full development of the highest good, is the key to preserving the openess necessary for a truly political society. For individualism to flourish, it requires an economic surplus, and India had the greatest wealth of the ancient world. It needs some form of education that encourages the development of critical thinking, and a social matrix that extends support to nonconformity. These conditions had just become possible in India in Buddha’s time, and his activities can be understood as gently contributing to them.
Siddhartha left his throne to seek a precise understanding of reality in order to serve society better. After experiencing that comprehensive awareness which he called awakening or enlightenment, he did not float away on a cloud of bliss into some otherworldly realm. He stood up and began a sustained campaign of social action, offering all people in all nations a chance to improve their moral, emotional, and intellectual lives, while creating a greater world for future generations. By founding institutions of education, he initiated, on the cultural and social levels, a politics of enlightenment. …
His movement was not the founding of a religion — it was the founding of a new educational system, a cultural and social revolution that consciously avoided taking over the existing institutions of government.
A revolution that transforms the outlook and behaviour of many individuals, and thereby slowly transforms a society can be called a “cool” revolution. It educates people to think critically, to enter that realm of nonconformity that has always been the source of change. When people have transformed their minds, they will naturally and coolly act to transform the society and eventually the polity. Shakyamuni turned politics on its head and proved that the best way to build a healthy society was from the bottom up — through the development of the individual — not from the top down.
The Buddha’s core insight of the lack of static identity of any person or thing exploded the root notions of social conditioning. When we understand the lack of fixed selves as the bases of the various conventional identities — priest, warrior, merchant, labourer, outcast, man, woman, native, alien, white, black — their nonabsoluteness is rendered plainly and the tendency to rigidity or fanaticism is greatly reduced. The unbound self, having seen through socially imposed role-playing, gains the intellectual freedom to begin to evolve his or her own identity.”