DON'T DRIFT INTO DISASTER
This is the first of a series of short essays in which I shall comment on the term paravritti which plays an important role in many Buddhist texts. The word is very close in meaning to “enlightenment”, but with distinctive implications which can give us some sense of important aspects of the spiritual life, both individual and collective, and also offer a way to reconcile the principles of self-power and other power..
In ordinary usage the word paravritti means “to turn back”. So we can think of it as referring to the Buddhist advocacy of turning away from the worldly life. We can think of paravritti as something that happens in the individual when that person turns back from getting enmeshed in the rat race, and this might be thought of as a self-power aspect, but we can also think of paravritti as the Buddha calling out to us “Turn back! Turn back! Don’t do it!” as he watches us drifting ignorantly into a way of life that ties us more and more firmly to the wheel of karma. So the same term can be understood in both a self-power and an other power way.
HUMANKIND, TURN BACK!
I think it is then interesting to also see this principle at a sociological and not merely individual level. Shakyamuni lived at a time when his tribe, the Shakya, had just made the transition from a wandering hunter-gatherer existence to the settled life of agriculture. One of the most telling events of the Buddha-to-be’s early life was his witness of the ploughing festival, which no doubt was intended to celebrate and popularise this lifestyle transition. Watching his father cut the first furrow of the new year he saw the earth opened, the lives of little creatures turned upside down and the birds descend and eat them. This disturbed him deeply. He felt an urge to turn away.
When we consider this background, it is surely interesting that what he later came to advocate was homelessness. For his most dedicated followers he prescribed a going forth that was a leaving behind of the settled life of the agricultural community. It was, in a way, a turning back to an ethical version of the kind of wandering life that has preceded it and that could, therefore, be argued to be more naturally human. Yuval Noah Harari, in his popular book Sapiens, points out that the transition to agriculture, which is commonly presented as a great step forward for humankind, can also be seen as a self-inflicted trap. Agriculture enabled a larger number to be fed, so that once the change had been made numbers increased making it practically impossible to go back to the earlier way of life. However, the new organised and tied-to-the-land way of life brought new diseases, war and periodic famine. The great majority of people lived more monotonous, miserable and probably shorter lives. It is possible to see Shakyamuni as a social commentator saying “Turn back while you still have the chance. Don’t do it.” In fact, toward the end of his lifetime, the Shakyan state was indeed handicapped by water shortage and then shattered by war.
We ourselves live in a different age. Not long ago in historical terms there was the industrial revolution, another supposedly great step forward, which involved misery on a massive scale for ordinary people. It is interesting to ponder if this was not also a trap of the kind that Harari points out. Once again numbers increased, this time massively, so we are now dependent upon our machines. This number of humans cannot survive without them. However, these increased numbers seriously threaten the survival of every other species on the planet and the effluent of all this industry is destroying the climate and environment. Are the Buddhas crying to us “Turn back, turn back before it is too late?” Perhaps it is too late already.
ON THE TREADMILL
This idea of seeming progress being a honey trap also applies at the individual level. Our modern society lures the young person into the trap of debt through advertising that proffers visions of happiness through possession, status and popularity which are to be realised by following the fashion. Thus they become wage slaves, tied down to a family life that turns out to be much more of a struggle than they ever imagined. Even supposedly spiritual activities become monetarised commodities and status symbols. The spirit is corrupted. As Thoreau is supposed to have said, most people live lives of quiet desperation. There must be many times in our lives when we have taken steps that enmesh us in things that we later come to regard as fetters. Perhaps, somewhere along the line, we did hear a “still small voice” whispering “Turn back, turn back,” but we did not listen.
So at both the individual and the collective level Buddhism is an advocacy of caution, suggesting that we not rush madly ahead into seemingly attractive projects that actually entrap us. There is much said these days about Buddhism being about living in the present moment, but when one considers the Buddhist philosophy it actually says a lot more about taking a longer term view. The Buddhas see us rising and falling according to our deeds. Nothing is predetermined. We make our own way, but we can heed the influence of the sage or we can ignore it. Ignorance (avidya) is the root of all evil, say the Buddhas.
There is a common criticism of Buddhism as negative. Many Buddhist injunctions are in negative form - desist from this, move away from that, don’t do such-and-such, practise non-greed, non-hate, non-delusion and so on. Some modern sanghas have gone so far as to try to rewrite all this in positive language and there is some benefit in doing so. However, something is also lost thereby. Buddhism tells us what to avoid if we are to stay free. In saying to turn back, the Buddhas are suggesting that our basic instincts are sound and that we ignore them at our peril. Turn back from greed, turn back from hate, turn back from delusion - deep down, one already knows this is right, but, in the heat of the moment, we often go astray.