I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know…, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many find it hard to make sense of modern day America and they feel that sincere efforts to influence the society toward greater inclusion, fairness, ecological consciousness, toward public policies based in idealism and effectiveness don’t seem to be bringing the result they feel they need to maintain optimism. As a result, they are losing hope and feel like disengaging. Listening to the news can be enough to send a person into depression. It could be asked, is the American Dream of life and society always improving over? Possibly, yes, if you think in terms of immediate results as you imagine them to be. But that’s the point. It is a dream of things always making sense as we interpret sense and of effort producing desired results as we want them to be. To be honest this is very egoic and narcissistic, and it is very American.
Does the current situation make sense? Of course it does. It is exactly the result of America being a materialistic, bigoted, dogmatic, jingoistic, instant-gratification, stimulation-addicted consumer society that is a major contributor to humanity’s current path toward destroying the ecological balance of the planet. Adding to the discouragement, there are many, if not most, in America who either disagree with this assessment or seem to have very little concern about it. AND… at the same time, in counterbalance, there is a growing presence of progressive and evolved political and social thinking taking root for a more inclusive, sustainable, and fair society than would have seemed possible only a short time ago. There is a strong historic strain of democracy, responsibility and fairness that runs through the consciousness of our society that sometimes quite surprisingly turns public thinking around in what seems like quantum leaps.
Recent elections have placed more women and minorities into office than ever, serious legislation concerning climate change and greater economic fairness are challenging the establishment, and in Chicago, a gay, black woman was elected mayor while exceptional minority and progressive politicians are succeeding across America. Two powerful states of political consciousness, one regressive and the other progressive, strain our political and social system. Our situation is, of course, reflective of our past trajectory into this moment exactly to these results. This is the meaning of the Buddhist notion of karma. The present is exactly the summation of the past. To stay realistically engaged requires knowing this and seeing our current circumstance in a broad historic context.
Will sincere effort to bring us to a course correction toward idealism and sane public policy that actually addresses the problems we face bring good result? Of course it will – yet most likely not in the time-frame many wish for or in quite the way we hope, nor will it happen without our suffering consequences from harmful conditions long established and continuing. There is no escaping karma. The problems that not only America but humanity faces are the result of an entire epoch of human history and evolution that has been based in human egoism, materialism, narcissism, and rigidly dogmatic belief systems quite disconnected from reality. The problems we face will not be corrected without shifts in consciousness that seem nearly impossible given the current preponderant mindset, yet this shift is happening.
There can be no doubt we will evolve and progress toward an order of harmony and wisdom that presently seems impossible. This will happen because it must, and evolutionary dynamics are just as inexorable as karma. We will adapt because we are challenged by vast social, economic, and geo-climactic forces, by the growing dysfunction of our social, economic, political and cultural institutions. How we adapt will determine whether the near future is beautiful and sustainable or dystopian, as is depicted in so many of the currently popular movies and television shows, with a deeply diminished quality of life in American society and on this planet. In either case, we are a resilient and creative species, and Nature is endlessly creative and resilient. The evolutionary trajectory of humanity eventually will lead us to living in the wisdom of harmony, and it is this harmony that is the Promised Land.
This brings us to another ancient Buddhist principle called dharma, the principle of the way things work, the laws of the Universe. Dharma tells us that only through evolving the collective consciousness of human society will the trajectory of human society and life on this planet begin to move in significantly healthier and saner directions. It also tells us that the collective consciousness of human society is progressed only through individuals who progress in consciousness, increasingly understanding and living within the truth that all phenomena are interrelated and interconnected. Dharma tells us that the Universe and humanity-as-an-expression-of-the-Universe are inexorably evolving into more complex unities capable of manifesting intelligent harmony, and so, for one who understands dharma, all that is necessary is to find and manifest intelligent harmony in themselves, both personally and in the public sphere. Karma and history will move humanity in the necessary direction.
In Buddhism, one who understands and lives by dharma for the benefit of all beings is called a bodhisattva, an awakened being. A bodhisattva knows that an evolved and enlightened human society is inevitable, in a sense, a promise, and knows they will most likely not live to see it, yet they dedicate their existence to its accomplishment. This is known as The Path of the Bodhisattva, and a bodhisattva realizes that Life makes perfect sense. Karmic forces (the state of consciousness and the ensuing actions) have created the results we presently live with and will shape all future results. And, very importantly, a bodhisattva knows that the ultimate sense and purpose of Life is to evolve and to be committed to the betterment of life for all beings – because it is what is needed by all beings, not because it is what they need.
What we can have faith in is that if we do our part to evolve in compassion and wisdom, the collective of humanity is just that much more compassionate and wise, and others will find inspiration and courage to make their own journey and to take their own stand for what is right and good. We can have faith that no matter how much cruelty and ignorance are manifesting presently, it is less so than was previously and will be even less so in the future. Within the human community there is an inexorable increase in wisdom and compassion with each passing generation. There are periods of regression, most certainly, and it could well be argued that we are presently in such a regressive phase, but the pain, confusion, and harm done by this regression is really only setting the stage for waking people up and propelling us into the next evolutionary progression. This is happening not for our own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, but because it is inevitable. We can have faith and find solace in knowing our own development and evolution are for the betterment of all beings, that we are instruments of human evolution. There is no place for personal discouragement, for these forces are not operating on the scale of the personal. It is in the full knowledge that, as the modern bodhisattva Dr. Martin Luther King declared – “I may not get there with you. But… we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
What is the Promised Land? It is an evolved human society built on harmony and wisdom buttressed by respect and compassion for all life. When will we get there? When a sufficient number of humans have done the work of becoming selfless – that is, wise and compassionate, aware and awake, thinking far less about how to make more of themselves while focusing far more on the well-being of their fellow humans and all the life that shares this planet, our collective home. How does this happen? Through individuals doing the work of their own evolution and refusing to become discouraged, by doing little personal acts of kindness and compassion daily while we seek to do what we can to influence politics and policy, holding to a much longer vision than needing today’s efforts to yield the desired results today. It is in having the wisdom to see that even perhaps in a particular political policy or candidacy defeat today, we have articulated and handled ourselves in a way so as to realize a more compassionate and wise result tomorrow or next year or in ten years or a hundred years. We WILL get to the Promised Land. It is inevitable. The time is now. The time is always now. The future is built on now. Be a bodhisattva. Do what is necessary to become awake and set the ground for others to become awake. This is how life can make sense. This is how The Promised Land will be realized – for future generations. And… we may be very surprised at what progress we can see in our lifetime. For a person who is today seventy years old, they have seen barriers in racial, gender, and sexual identity discrimination fall in ways that could never have been anticipated in the world they were born into in the late 1940’s. More work in the struggle for human rights and economic fairness needs to be done, as well as work in recognizing animal rights and the right of the Earth to health and balance. This is the work of the next seventy years and beyond, and great progress will be accomplished. This we can have faith in because progress has shown itself as the true long course of human history before. We are shaping the karma of future generations today by doing what we can to shape a more resilient, idealistic, compassionate, and wise America and world. Do not be discouraged; just do the work because the work is needed. The Promised Land is just over the horizon.