In America and much of the West, the common understanding of the word “freedom” is something I might call “outer” freedom: Freedom from outside control and persecution, especially from government or religious institutions. The religious wars of post-Catholic Europe and the immorality of the medieval aristocracy shaped the concepts of rights and democracy in England, France, and the United States. When we talk about freedom, it’s traditionally a narrow subject that centers around government abuses and the legal system designed to bridle them.
That concept has grown to include other forms of persecution or control, perceived and real, such as social pressures and obligations. Traditional religious institutions have atrophied in western societies, partly because the faiths they advocate are a form of social control. For many people, the word “religion” is a now a pejorative, the opposite of which is “spirituality” or perhaps “philosophy.” The “better” words describe individual activities that a person can freely explore; the “worse” words describe communal values and social expectations. (I put these common judgements in scare quotes because they can be good or bad.)
Poverty continues to be a major problem, but the emphasis on individualism has led to its exacerbation. Government policies have shifted steadily away from social goods and towards the maximization of individual and corporate wealth. Of course, that means wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer people in practice because those already wealthy (people and corporations) can leverage the power of that wealth to an even greater extent to protect and expand their sources of income. The turn away from generosity this financial individualism produces causes the inequality to grow further. Individual people and corporations with more wealth than they could possibly use or need continue to amass more of it.
Many other forms of destructive ideology have rushed into the vacuum left by the collapse of communal values. Political ideologies, for example, appear very much like religious faiths, and they even form the basis of organizations that ostensibly are political parties but talk and behave like churches run by religious zealots. Propaganda weaves mythologies to explain events and motives, creating distorted world views designed to incite destructive passions and reinforce loyalties. In recent years, in America’s two-party system, we’ve begun to see the disintegration of the political system because these trends amplify irrationality and conflict.
I would argue that these disheartening social trends result from a kind of inner bondage. The human spirit been going fallow; like a plot of land, it naturally grows weeds rather than grains and fruit. Our much sought-after outer freedoms enable bad behavior and social disorder because people are controlled by their baser passions when left undeveloped. We depend on each other whether we think we do or not.
When human civilizations first developed in the ancient world, they realized the necessity of cultivating the human spirit to keep their civilizations stable from one generation to the next. They learned these lessons after experiencing bloody periods of civil and feudal warfare. Emerging from those disorders, they found ways to solve a central paradox of human society: For society to be free of barbarism, individuals must free themselves of their inner demons, which is accomplished through personal cultivation, education, and communal values.
In Buddhism, these inner demons are called bonds because they limit a person’s inner freedom by determining his thoughts, feelings, and actions in reactive and self-afflicting ways. The Buddha grouped these bonds into three basic categories: Desire, hate, and delusion.
The bonds of desire create emotional obsessions to obtain things we find attractive or pleasurable. When it becomes extreme, it causes us to lose control of our lives, such as the case with addictions and greed. The bonds of hate cause anger, discrimination, and violence. The bonds of delusion cause people to become confused about what is real and what is moral. All three of these bonds exist in the human mind because of a fundamental ignorance that creates this system of control: A Buddhist practitioner works to be free of this root ignorance and take control of their destiny.
If Western civilization is to halt the on-going devolution, I think it will need to return to these ancient lessons like those taught by the Buddha, Confucius, and the other great thinkers who helped to stabilize their civilizations in times of turmoil. With the global population and environmental crisis unfolding, we have a responsibility that goes far beyond each individual country or person.