The Illusion of Separateness

Once we learn to quiet our mind, the second step for the Bodhisattva is seeing the truth. We deliberately turn toward the difficulties of the world, and shine the light of understanding. “The enemy,” said Ajahn Chah, “is delusion.” Delusion blames others, creates enemies and fosters separation. The truth is that we are not separate. War, economic injustice, racism, and environmental destruction stem from the illusion of separateness. It is delusion that separates us from other human tribes, the trees and the oceans on this increasingly small planet. When we look truthfully, we can also see that no amount of material and scientific advancement will solve our problems alone. New computer networks, innovative fuels and biological advances can just as easily be diverted to create new weapons, exacerbate conflicts and speed environmental degradation. Economic and political change will fail unless we also find a way to transform out consciousness. It is a delusion that endless greed and profit, hatred and war will somehow protect us and bring us happiness.

More than half a century ago, President Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces that won the Second World War, gave a remarkable address. Speaking just before he left office, Eisenhower, the world’s most respected military man, spoke out against the madness and unchecked growth of the defense industry worldwide. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

President Eisenhower spoke of the immense cost of the military industrial complex which, like the prison industrial complex and the foreign policy power complex, chooses power and profit instead of compassion. We must learn that this will not make us safe. Collective wellbeing arises when we govern by wisdom and loving-kindness instead of fear. “Human beings should refrain from causing harm to one another and not allow their actions to be based on hatred and greed,” said the Buddha, in words that speak directly to modern times. “They should refrain from killing, from stealing. They should refrain from occupations that bring suffering, from weapons trade, from any actions that bring the enslavement of others.” Through these words, he was not proclaiming a religious code. He was providing a social psychology for the happiness of individuals and the collective.

In facing the truth, the Bodhisattva chooses to bear witness to our personal and collective suffering with compassion. It has been amazing for the world to witness the operation of the Truth and Reconciliation Council in South Africa. The truth telling and revelation of so many apartheid era destructive acts did not stir hate and retaliation, but somehow brought healing and calm to the suffering of the nation. It is a testament to the power of truth to allow a community to rebuild itself after so much devastation. Bongani Finca, a minister, was one of the fifteen commissioners on the South African Council. He describes how, in spite of the past atrocities and cruelty, victims and survivors wanted to find reconciliation. “I remember hearing the testimony of the daughter of one of the four gentlemen killed in Cradock, a girl who was 16 years old. She said, ‘I want to forgive. But I do not know whom to forgive. If only I could know who did what to my father, I would like to forgive.’ This was such a moving testimony by a young person who, at that age, we would expect to be so bitter. But there was no bitterness. Often the attitudes and responses of the victims to the Truth Commission were just amazing. It was an indication of the fact that the people who have suffered most become so generous in spirit, for some strange reason.”

In the end, the unarmed truth will come out. It will be whispered in the alleyways, canonized by our poets, held in the hearts of all those who care. Martin Luther King said, “I still believe that standing up for the unarmed truth is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” These words describe the moral and psychological power that steps out of delusion and tells us the truth.


This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”

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