American singer-songwriter and Noble laureate Bob Dylan wrote in his song Ballad of a Thin Man:
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Do these lines resonate with you as a citizen of today’s troubled world? This is perhaps the wildest time that any of us currently alive on Earth have experienced. This is not due to any good or bad trends, but rather the fundamental uncertainty we all face; so much is changing as tectonic shifts radically occur in the very substratum of our social and environmental realms. Meanwhile, some people might be rushing into blunt declarations about the state of the world and offering surefire predictions for our future, and there seem to be two schools of thought, with pessimism on one side and optimism on the other, each loaded with convincing reasons for why their claims are true. For an undecided witness, many arguments on both sides possess the merit of scientific evidence and thus cannot be written off as simple products of wishful thinking or conspiracy theories.
The school of pessimism offers a bleak narrative in which the world is already in intractable trouble and will continue to descend into an abyss of nightmarish scenarios: the rise of nationalism, a resurrection of authoritarian regimes, a third world war on the way, widespread epidemics that could wipe out swathes of the population at any given moment, and unstoppable environmental devastation around the globe due to climate change and overconsumption of the Earth’s resources. This new world paradigm will lead us into chaos with all the newly arrived power players bringing lawlessness into the international political structure. Artificial intelligence will eventually conquer us and the Earth will someday belong to robots. The list keeps growing. These narratives do have a factual basis and cannot be ruled out as an impossible reality.
Proponents of the school of optimism tell a totally different story with big smiles on their faces. Their usual testimony lies in comparing the present with the past. The present looks quite good in almost every respect when juxtaposed with past. It is true that, overall, this is the most peaceful time the world has ever witnessed—war was a normal and regular affair even a century ago. Child mortality has been drastically reduced through improved living standards and better nutrition. It looks like our average IQ score is increasing even though most agree it is a flawed measure of human intelligence. The practice of slavery has been outlawed pretty much everywhere. Most religious institutions no longer have the power to burn witches alive, and their authority to punish is dwindling. Racial and gender equality are improving with every decade. New scientific discoveries and inventions will solve all the challenges we are facing right now. Soon, this world will be a technological utopia in which robots will do all the work while we enjoy a universal basic income, practice yoga, go to the beach, take long naps, pursue hobbies, and watch our favorite TV shows. It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Yet there is danger in blindly believing any narrative that can lead us into inaction, whether out of naivety or despair. No one really knows what kind of future awaits us. The future is not a fixed, unchangeable fate that is predetermined; it is in our hands. The future will be shaped by the vision that we hold and the actions we take today. It is true that the world is a much better place than has ever been, and no one should wish to return to the past—there are no “good old days.” We need to believe that humanity has great potential to survive and thrive in a universe where our existence is an important part of the grand scheme. But there are pressing issues that must be addressed if we wish to have a better tomorrow. To do this, improved governmental policies alone will not solve the problem. Everyone from across the political spectrum must come together to work for the common good. Religion must be used not as a manipulative means to divide, but as a benevolent force to unite. Religion has a profound influence on our identity, value systems, and approaches to life and death due to the fact that 84 per cent of humans are religious and religious people are having more babies than non-religious people. There are many, many examples of religious institutions that have played benevolent roles, such as Christian churches helping the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s.
The world faces three overriding challenges: first, climate change; second, the ever-growing disparity between poor and rich; and third, religious sectarianism. These three factors can bring huge problems including potential existential threats. Here Buddhism has a chance to offer positive motivation and guidance. It should encourage its 500 million adherents to work toward solving these issues. Buddhist leaders should address these concerns in their talks and incorporate action toward solving these concerns as part of our Dharma practice. They should remind their followers that all human beings are equal and are part of the same family, and that we need to work for the well-being of all.
I recently co-led a New Year meditation retreat with three other Buddhist teachers. Their teachings are extremely forward-looking and enlightening, and many of the participants were young and their hearts were in the right place. I was moved by the whole experience, which filled me with hope for humanity. During a lunch break, one teacher and I had a conversation in which we agreed with each other that humanity as a whole is waking up. So let’s all be part of the big awakening. May there be peace in the world. May everyone have a decent livelihood with dignity. May people be kind and generous toward each other.
Let me invite all of you to meditate on this simple inquiry: “Do I want to be on the right side of history?” This is a vital question for individuals who have power to influence masses. Religious leaders in particular should take this message to heart. Will you be on the right side of history?