Of late, I’ve been reading books about the future. Most recently, I read Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight (2nd ed.) by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop (Hinesight 2015). Now I’m starting in on Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows (Chelsea Green 2008). You may remember Ms. Meadows, who died in 2001, as the lead author of Limits to Growth: A Report for The Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (Universe Books 1972).*
In reading about strategic foresight, I see the blurry future out-of-focus through a viewfinder. The camera metaphor quickly becomes inappropriate because the future is pregnant with alternate possibilities, probabilities and preferred outcomes. Furthermore, the interaction of the many complex systems of our world plays out over varying spans of time, some immediate, some only to be experienced by our descendants.
We feel the presence of the future—we have an intuitive grasp of the complexity of our systems, and our friable security. Nudge theory would say anything we can do to push trends and events toward a preferred outcome would not go amiss, even though much is beyond our control. In that regard, I’m gratified to know that publishing books like This Fragile Planet: His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Environment (Sumeru 2021) or Zen Conversations: 42 Zen teachers talk about the scope of Zen teaching and practice in North America (Sumeru 2021) contributes meaningfully to public discourse about our shared future—as does this column, hopefully.
The part of that evolution which does not include us personally is naturally harder for us to conjure up. Out of sight, out of mind. Where the suffering of others in other lands is concerned, the dilution is from distance. Where our own demise is concerned, the dilution is from time – and that is even harder to fathom because most people don’t relish dwelling on their own death. There’s plenty on that subject in the cornucopia of Buddhist literature.
As you are reading this, the 17th Sakyadhita Conference is underway. I’m gratified to have been in a position to publish books and chapters by members and supporters of Sakyadhita over the past decade. Reflecting on COP26, with its cacophony of voices, I see the same focus on our shared future reflected in the title of Sakyadhita’s conference: Buddhist Women Beyond Boundaries: Interfaith, Interdependence, Environment. In other words, strategic foresight is on everybody’s mind, and we will hopefully achieve critical mass to change the channel on our extractive overshoot human nature, take governance back from amoral corporations, and look unflinchingly at the systemic roots of racial and gender-based violence—indeed, at othering of any kind.
In an article I wrote recently entitled “Teaching the Environmental Activists of Tomorrow about Project Management Today,” in Green Teacher magazine,** I brought up the essential element of explicitly training young people in the fine art of project management. I’d like to do the same thing for strategic foresight. Curiously, the books I’m reading on that subject make no mention of project management, although they cover the same territory. They also don’t include other domains such as design thinking, organizational and change management, crowdsourcing, and/or charrettes. But I can see those dimensions.
So that got me to wondering: how would one take those tools and apply them to Buddhist organizations? I wonder how many of those organizations have engaged in formal strategic foresight exercises. I suspect they use a methodology quite at odds with the prevailing tools of corporate crystal-ball gazing, stochastic statistical modelling of climate, biodiversity loss, social unrest and turbulence surveillance, etc.
I’m going to try to apply what I’m learning to something in my own community. As a high school teacher—retired, but with a couple of toes still dipping in the waters—I will be asking my school board to see their official strategic foresight plan. Their last one was published in 2019, and so it is completely out of date. I’d like to find out specifically about their plans to convert all or most of their energy requirements to solar farms on school roofs, etc. I’d also like to know about their HVAC commitments over the next nine years until 2030. But more than that, I’d like to know about changes to the curriculum to reflect our new reality.
Could the same things apply to Buddhist organizations? It’s one thing for an inner circle of practitioners to orbit around a leader who is naturally charismatic, but it is quite another to sustain a culture of commitment to the Dharma across multiple locations, generations, and issues. What kind of model of social organization will we need for Buddhists to play a meaningful role in the Kali Yuga—which is now, by the way, in case you forgot?
One aspect of strategic foresight involves creating holistic scenarios of alternate futures, inherently consistent and experientially rich. Imagine if you will, dear reader, sitting down over tea with a Buddhist teacher from the future. She is from the edges of the Amazon or downtown Kyiv. She grew up in a refugee camp of migrants. The situation is chaotic, but not so chaotic that you can’t enjoy a leisurely cup of tea in the sunlit courtyard. The distant hills are green with spring cover, but no snow. The lithium and cobalt barons are there, in the shadows.
Those who live in the world of 2050 will be able to say that our world once had such and such a famous spiritual leader in it, or such and such a powerful political leader. The issues they face daily will scarcely resemble those we so recently grappled with. The present moment is indeed ephemeral. My gaze seduced by the television or social media, I am drawn into a world of frivolous distractions that hide a pernicious riptide. The way forward is bifurcated, and then branches off into a thicket of implication trees, waving like kelp beds under dappled, shimmering water. Are there still viable coral reefs? Who lost their home to sea level rise? We got to the top of the rollercoaster and have just started to pitch over the abyss we knew was coming – but hey wasn’t that why we jumped on the ride in the first place? Or is that only the experience of privileged white folks in the northern hemisphere? Will China be the dominant power—spoiler alert: yes—and how will their worldview play out in Buddhist organizations around the world? Their track record on Tibet does not bode well for a time in which they may have seized Taiwan.
It’s a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. One can find guides to identifying, getting ready for, and responding to events in each of the four VUCA categories.***
If Buddhist organizations need to self-finance but have no viable means of support from their own activities, where are the donors who will make it possible? This is a question many congregations have been facing for at least a decade. Indeed, it is a situation that affects all faith communities, and many secular institutions as well. Supply chain turbulence, unavailability of key sectors of the healthcare delivery system due to overflow of COVID-related demand, or employment statistics seemingly decoupled entirely from the stock market—one doesn’t have to look too far to see signs of systemic stress, like crumbling concrete beams in an aging overpass about to be washed away by a raging river.
If the financial underpinnings of all but a few Buddhist institutions are vaporizing, at least according to industrial ecology, there’s going to be consolidation in the marketplace. It’s happened before, such as when Tsongkhapa’s Gelugpa monasteries took over a variety of struggling smaller monasteries adhering to tenets of other lineages—such as Jonang.
Equally dynamic would be a dispersion of control, a joyful anarchy that has characterized many Buddhist communities before. As nation states prove their inability to address the issues of the day effectively, we’ve seen the increasing power of cities, in organizations such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.
You can try and connect the dots, but these are all merely speculation about possible outcomes. Not exactly conspiracy theory, but perhaps a distant cousin.
In the realm of organizational development, leaders employ a variety of tools, including role playing, conversation cards, gamification, immersive experiences, and so on—all in the service of achieving some consensual future from all their stakeholders. For example, there’s the “The Thing From The Future” game, which exists in a free downloadable print-cut-out-and-play format. There is, in fact, an entire industry built around these thought and conversation tools.
Wouldn’t it be worthwhile for each Buddhist sangha to conduct their own ongoing futures reflection and consensus-seeking? It’s not a one-size-fits-all world around the corner. Perhaps one or more of them would share their methodology with others? Any project manager will tell you that articulating the lessons learned is an essential component of any good project closure. Another essential component is a robust communications strategy to ensure the vision is widely shared.
I’m sure that Buddhist Studies professors will find this a fertile field, but I’m much more interested in how Buddhist practitioners will respond to the challenges of the future. The illusion of objectivity that haunts academia casts a shadow over their self-distancing, illustrated in how our evolving history of the internment of Japanese citizens in the USA and Canada during WWII blows away the clouds of what we thought was the “real” narrative.
Groucho Marx was famously quoted for refusing to join any club that would have him as a member. He had a very humorous way of turning conventional wisdom on its head. Perhaps we should be seeing those old Zen master capping phrases as the Borscht Belt zingers of their time and place, except we’ve lost the context in which they were funny. Funny is a much more elusive thing these days.
Buddhists like to congratulate themselves informally on how Buddhism changed from country to country in its diaspora. That transformation had a temporal dimension too, and it bears remembering that the same mutability exists here and now in our immediate future, our tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
* A digital version of that original book, scanned by Ms. Meadows herself, is available here: https://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Limits-to-Growth-digital-scan-version.pdf
** Project Management in EE (Green Teacher)
** What VUCA Really Means For You (Harvard Business Review)
17th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women
Climate Leadership Group
Doughnut Economics Action Lab
The Thing From The Future (Situation Lab)
100 Questions: Work Edition (The School of Life)
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