INNER REVOLUTION a book review

11 07 2005

One of my favorite political texts is Robert Thurman’s “Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real
Happiness,” first published by Riverhead Books in 1998. Robert Thurman was one of the first Americans to find his way to Dharamsala, India, and become a Buddhist monk. He came back to America, decided to drop his vows but remain a Buddhist, and married. You’ve probably seen his daughter in the movies—Uma Thurman.

I’d like to share my review of this slim but profound volume with you. I originally wrote it for a magazine called The Country Rag. It’s no longer published but there is a memorial website.

Overall, human civilization seems to have had a deleterious effect on this planet’s ecosystem. The Indus and Euphrates valleys, two once-fertile areas where civilization first arose, have been trampled into desert by our passage there. Europe, once a vast, wild, trackless forest, is now largely farm and city—and its forests are beginning to die. Here in America, in our own lifetimes woods and wilderness have become spaces preserved only by the strength of the government, as corporate greed for their wealth of “raw materials” drives their “value” up to the point where immediate exploitation becomes the only economically rational thing to do.

Why do we do this? Why are we as a species so ready to foul our own nest? This widespread fouling is created by the acts of countless individuals, acts prompted by individual perceptions and decisions. Although the perceptions and decisions are individual, I believe they can be seen to be prompted by certain common assumptions, psychologies, and myths.

A common human assumption, because it has been true for all our thousands of years of history up until the last few hundred years, is that, no matter how much of a mess you make, it’s ok, because nature covers over everything sooner or later. In the last hundred years, though, we have gone from maintaining small pockets of human culture in a vast sea of nature to the reverse situation.

The human psyche is built for individual survival. When we were islanders in the vast sea of nature, subject to plagues and droughts and ice ages, bands of humans learned to compete with each other for scarce resources and hoard them against hard times.The predominant myth of the dominant culture on our planet is an angry and jealous god, harassed by an evil other whose strength is in this world, a god who will resolve his struggle with that evil other in a way that will destroy this world we live in—probably very soon.

This god, like a feudal lord, cares more about whether we humans acknowledge his suizeranity than how we behave among ourselves.These are the attitudes that we, as Greens, face when we take up the challenge of altering the course of American politics. They run deep. They are not swayed by logic, catchy phrases, demonstrations, or legislation. To change them, we need to know how to change attitudes and override psychological conditioning. We need a countermyth that posits a steady state world, free of overarching cosmic conflict.

That is a lot to come up with from scratch! Fortunately, there are a few places on earth where humans have been able to create high culture in harmony with nature, and by studying these, we may derive a template which can be applied to the reshaping of America. Tibet was one of those places.

In Inner Revolution, Robert Thurman tells the story of the rise of Tibetan culture, weaving it in with the rest of world history in an inspiringly unique way. For example, the early part of the seventeenth century saw widespread conflicts over the interplay of religion and government. In Europe, this was known as the Thirty Years’ War, and resulted in the disestablishment of the Catholic Church and the placing of the quest for material wealth and power in the driver’s seat of our civilization.

In Tibet, by contrast, the struggle ended with the ascendency of the Dalai Lama, who was (and is) recognized as the incarnation of Compassion (as if the Pope were Christ incarnate), and who proceeded to act to create peace and harmony in the country based on the realization that the millenium had come and they were living in it.

Thurman’s narrative is not only historical. He also imparts the essence of Buddhist philosophy and practice, and the fruits of that practice. Here is a paragraph that shows this kind of bridging:

“Millenial or apocalyptic consciousness… develops when a person breaks through the shell of habitual self-centeredness, sees through the falsely created view of the absoluteness of the ordinary world, and realizes truth in an instant. A healthy person in the melting aspect of the moment of full orgasm loses himself or herself completely and has an instance of apocalypse before the structures and boundaries of inadequacy return with all their force.

“People absorbed in activity—runners running, musicians performing, artists creating , mothers giving milk—all of them have a taste of millenial consciousness, a momentary blissful freedom from dissatisfaction, self-concern, and pain. The consciousness in the enlightenment movement is called millenial when the vision of this freedom expands so greatly that it aims to create a nationwide and ultimately a world-wide society of perfect happiness based on enlightenment. It is apocalyptic in the sense of being instantaneously revelatory and ultimately decisive.”

I think that pretty much all of us who are involved in Green politics derive our passionate involvement in it from what he is talking about here.Thurman goes on to examine the question of how to apply the lessons of Tibet to the situation in America. Obviously this does not mean that most of us need to become yak herders! What he does do is extract a series of axioms and a “ten point program”(!) for political action.

Here are some sample “axioms”:

“16. The main rival of monasticism is imperialistic militarism, the core institution for secular and religious rules of ordinary societies. Militarism is anchored in organizations in which the human being’s basic feeling of enlightenment is trained out and armored over, encouraging individual regression to subhuman insensitivity, viciousness, and harmfulness. Militarism allows for a politics of compulsion, if it allows for any politics at all.”

“29. All one needs to understand the inner revolution and live the politics of enlightenment is wisdom about one’s long-term self-interest, good- humored tolerance of one’s own and others’ faults, trust in the adequacy of the environment and our fellow beings, and the courage to take up the responsibility of enlightenment.”

I feel very enthusiastic about reccomending this book. It is rare to see such adroit interweaving of politics, psychology, and spirituality, and I think anyone who cares about the fate of the earth and those of us here on it will be inspired and instructed by Thurman’s opus. The only things I would fault him for are failing to include an index or bibliography—but perhaps the lack of bibliography is to better encourage each of us to make our own search, which is all the more self-empowering—and that is the theme of this book.

I would like to leave you with some quotes from Thurman’s ten-point platform.

“Lately (the) democratic process has been effectively threatened by virtual autocrats who have pretended to champion the individual and his or her liberty against the supposedly oppressive domination by ‘big government.’ These corporate spokespersons have used the “big lie” technique and have come close to subverting democracy in the name of individual liberty. They have led revolts to diminish taxes for the very rich; called for law and order to imprison the very poor; tried to reestablish racist dominance patterns; attacked women’s rights to chose their roles and relations; pretended to defend religious freedom to promote religious bigotry; supported a demented international arms industry and an insane level of citizenry armament; attempted to remove all protections of the environment from short-sighted exploitation; and generally fostered a sense of alienation, apathy and confusion among the people. It is therefore essential that we reassume the idealistic high ground of democratic political activism and put libertarian principles at the fore of all policies. A skillful arguing of these principles will solve the major tough issues of the day and reunite the divisive, single-issue splinter groups into a winning coalition. To succeed, we must try to present enlightenment reinforcement as a developing middle way through the crippling polarizations.”

“The leaders of the 1980s rolled back the American and European welfare state by rejecting government’s role in managing society, holding up the white racist’s specter of the black welfare mother with nine children on the dole who rides in Cadillacs and swims in luxuries and so on. But this image was only a racist fantasy, and, on top of the injustice, these leaders didn’ t save any money at all but ran up the biggest deficits in history. What was saved in school lunches, nutrition for pregnant mothers, and so on was spent tenfold in crime prevention, prisons, and futile measures against the sheer destruction that always results from injustice. Job training was cut so that more money could be spent on unemployment benefits. Taxes were somewhat cut, but mostly for the rich, and the massive transfer of wealth to the top one percent of the population resulted not in a bonanza of investment and job creation but in a massive flight of capital to tax-sheltered investment in cheap-labor areas, with a disastrous loss of jobs and infrastructure in the developed societies. Our platform must be to reaffirm the altruistic welfare state, to prove that money invested in the lower end of the economic scale is money well spent. The removal of a poverty-ridden disaster area of the country is not only just but also saves funds in the long run and creates an incalculable treasure of human potential.”

“Enlightened activists are pro-wealth. They consider it the karmic evolutionary fruit of generosity in previous lives. A bodhisattva or messianic person wants to accumulate wealth so he or she can give it away to needy people, most creatively by investing intelligently in things that will provide long-term happiness to the people. But if wealth becomes an object of obsession, if it is used carelessly, it can be incredibly destructive, most of all to the wealthy people themselves. The enlightened democratic system institutionalizes revolution and uses progressive income taxes and other mechanisms to rebalance the rich/poor equation gently and continuously. Our platform reaffirms this policy of continuous, peaceful revolution out of compassion for both the poor and the rich. True wealth is a rich network of loving people, a pleasant and healthy lifestyle, a beautiful environment, and an inviting setting for expressing creativity. Money alone is a heavy burden, isolating its owner from real affection, ennobling unhealthy addictions, harming the environment, and causing boredom, frustration, and anxiety. Enlightenment cures all these problems through its prime virtue: generosity in all things.”

And I think that’s something we can all agree to. The book is Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, written by Robert Thurman, published by Riverhead Books in 1998.

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