The Moral Challenge of Our Time

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

At this time when the world’s population has been fused into a single global community, the most formidable moral challenge we face is to create a world that works for everyone. We must give shape to a world in which war has finally been abolished; in which peoples of different ethnicities, faiths, genders, and sexual orientations can live in harmony; in which poverty has been replaced by shared prosperity; in which all can enjoy the basic material supports of a healthy life, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical care; and in which harnessing the energy we need does not inflict gaping wounds on the planet’s delicate ecosystem. In the U.S. especially, we must reverse our current drift toward concentrations of power and wealth and replace policies and official decrees that foment hatred with those that can nurture an inclusive democracy that unites everyone under the banner of justice and liberty.

Although such a task may be utopian, if we don’t define our goals we won’t be able to pursue the pragmatic policies we need to gradually work toward the kind of world that exemplifies them. The task of creating a just, sustainable, and harmonious world is not so much a matter of political choreography as it is of pursuing the moral ideals we cherish. Policy decisions require a polestar by which they should be guided; otherwise they will flounder in the ocean of expediency, serving the interests of those with the greatest influence—influence that is too often determined by wealth. 

The polestar that guides us should be determined by the ancient moral maxim of treating others as we would want others to treat us. To pursue this ideal on a global scale calls on us, as followers of the Buddha’s teaching, to envision the Buddhist path in a new light that illuminates aspects of the path that for long have been hidden in the shadows. We can discern in the Buddhist path two kinds of movements leading in opposite directions, both essential to the completeness of the path. One is an ascending movement leading upward from the mundane world, with its pain and hardship, to a supreme state of freedom that transcends all limitations. This is the movement from ignorance to enlightenment, from suffering to bliss, from defilement to purity, from the cycle of birth and death to nirvana. The other movement is a descent that leads from the height of wisdom and equanimity back into the dust of everyday life. 

Traditional expressions of the Buddhist path emphasize the upward movement, and thus extol renunciation, seclusion, and contemplation as the prerequisites of highest realization. I believe that today we must put a fresh emphasis on the descending movement of the path. This will be a movement that builds upon the achievements of the ascent—upon such qualities as mindfulness, insight, peace, and equanimity—but complements them with a greater concern for the fate of humanity and the planet on which we live. 

This movement might be described as a gesture of love guided by wisdom, even as a gesture of grace. From this point of view the aim of spiritual endeavor is not only to escape the bondage of the world but also to acquire the wisdom and compassion, the patience, power, and inner balance, needed to strive to create a world in which violence, exploitation, and discrimination are reduced if not fully eradicated, one in which everyone can live in freedom from want and fear. 

In embarking on this movement we must, like the bodhisattva Kuan Yin, learn to listen to the cries of the world. Today cries of pain and suffering arise on all sides: from garment workers in Bangladesh and electronics workers in China and debt-driven farmers in India; from people facing famine in the Horn of Africa; from women and children being crushed by the horrors of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia—people with parents, children, and friends who daily fear for their lives. Cries arise from Rohingya refugees who had to flee their villages in Myanmar when they saw their homes burnt to ashes and their loved ones shot before their eyes. From people in Palestine whose humanity is constantly being effaced. From children in northwest Pakistan who can’t sleep from fear of drones; from immigrants in the U.S. threatened with deportation; from African Americans in U.S. cities who have seen too many of their fellows shot by police or bundled off into prisons; from Native Americans whose sacred lands are being plagued by pipelines for conveying oil and gas. We must also hear the cries rising from the animals brutally mistreated by us, and even the cry of the earth itself, which groans beneath the weight of human greed, arrogance, and ignorance.

I have called the attitude we need “conscientious compassion,” a moral commitment driven by conscience and spurred by a deep identification with the pain of the world. Conscientious compassion isn’t sentimental compassion, nor is it an insulated compassion confined to the quiet of the meditation hall. Rather, it’s a fierce compassion that urges us to act on behalf of all those whose humanity is crushed, mocked, slighted, or marginalized. It urges us to strive for social and economic justice based on a sense of human solidarity and recognition of the intrinsic dignity of every person.

At a deep level, what lies at the root of all our multiple crises—whether political, social, economic, or ecological—is the influence of toxic ideologies that encourage us to treat other people and the natural world merely as means to our narrow ends. These ideologies celebrate the unrestrained pursuit of narrow self-interest rooted in greed. While they claim that the pursuit of self-interest advances the good of all, in reality they lead us away from our real well-being, cause immense harm to others, and jeopardize our common future.

To reverse course, what we need with utmost urgency, in my view, is a fresh recognition of the intrinsic worth of the human person and respect for the integrity of the natural environment. Above all, we must learn to see other human beings as ends in themselves and not merely as means to the satisfaction of our own ambitions, whether they be personal, communal, or national. This task demands that respect for the person be extended to every human life. We have to see that all human beings deserve the chance to live in dignity, that all are entitled to a meaningful life. We cannot limit this recognition to those who share our ethnic identity, religion, or nationality. To be true to the moral good, we have to acknowledge that every human being—regardless of race, nationality, religion, language, gender, or sexual orientation—shares with us a common humanity, and as such merits our respect and concern.

To recognize that every human being possesses intrinsic dignity is to accept two moral values as having primary claims on us. These two values are justice and love—in terms of classical Buddhism, we might call them dharma and metta. The two work in conjunction, each supplying what the other lacks. We must thus give equal weight to both and make them the decisive factors in our efforts to transform our world.

The need for justice—whether legal, social, or economic justice—proceeds from the premise that each individual person possesses intrinsic worth. When we carefully consider this premise, we find that it really means that all human beings are inherently equal. It means that all other people are as valuable as I am, that I am not “someone special” except in the sense that everyone else is “someone special.” The premise of equality implies that no one is inherently entitled to privileges that are to be denied to others. It entails that all are entitled to sufficient food, medical care, an education, and the freedom to express their thoughts. And it entails that all have the right to help shape the political institutions, policies, and laws under which they live.

The moral ideal of justice speaks to us in an impersonal voice that sometimes seems cold and unfeeling. Therefore, if the quest for the ethical good is to spring from the deepest springs of the human spirit, justice must be united with another value that confers warmth and spiritual abundance on the ethical life. This other value is love. Love means that we cherish other people as much as we cherish ourselves, that we regard other human beings, even those unknown to us, with affection and appreciation, as if they were our parents, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters. From the Buddhist perspective, love should reach even beyond the limits of the human and extend to all sentient beings as a wish for their well-being and a refusal to inflict on them any unnecessary suffering. When it turns to those afflicted with suffering, love gives birth to compassion, the wish to rescue beings from the sea of affliction in which they are immersed.

In pursuing the dictates of justice, love, and compassion, a prime requirement is to make a commitment to speak the truth, the unvarnished truth, even when doing so exposes us to personal risk. Every day, distortion and disinformation reverberate through the media and ride the waves of cyberspace to justify militarism, economic pillage, and travesties of social and racial justice. Yet amid the chaos of political debates, those devoted to a moral social vision must advocate for justice and peace. In particular we must be ready to speak up to protect the vulnerable and defend the natural environment from the assaults of those who benefit from exploiting them for their private purposes.

There are hundreds of ways to translate our ideals of love, justice, and compassion into action, and we each have to find our own way to do so. By looking within and finding where one’s heart breaks open, we will hear our personal call into the world of transformative action. You need not worry that you don’t have the skills or talents. With our systems of instant communication, we can unite our personal talents with others in a shared endeavor rooted in care for the earth and compassion for people everywhere. By acting together, we can accomplish great things and make a lasting impact on our collective future. What is needed most is the faith to get started and the determination to continue.

This is a condensed and revised version of a longer essay that was published on the BGR blog:

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