Civilizing civilizations in an interdependent world

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

When Civilizations Meet: Civilization, as a social system, can be considered an open system defined in the space of interaction among climate, culture, economy and polity. As an open system, the life of a civilization is a story of constant struggle against the forces of nature as well as the challenges coming from other civilizations. Interactions that take place between civilizations can be grouped into four types.

The first—and the oldest—type of interaction between civilizations is “conquest and subjugation”, where one civilization conquers and subjugates another civilization with its commanding superiority in military power. India, one of the oldest civilizations of the world, saw two episodes of “conquest and subjugation” in its history: the invasion of the Aryans around 1,500 B.C.E., who conquered and subjugated the native people, mostly Dravidians, and the invasion of Muslims which culminated in the establishment of the Mughal Empire by Babur in 1526 with his victory in the Battle of Paniput. The Mughal Empire lasted, with ups and downs, until 1757 when Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey established the English rule, paving the way for “colonization and exploitation” by the British, which is the second type of interaction between civilizations.

Needless to say, the British were not alone when it comes to “colonization and exploitation”, as they were soon followed by other European nations—the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the French, and the Dutch—who went on to colonize and exploit the Old as well as the New World. What distinguishes “colonization and exploitation” from “conquest and subjugation” is that it involves domination by a stronger civilization of a weaker civilization, mostly for the purpose of extracting economic benefits. Unlike “conquest and subjugation”, the indigenous civilization is allowed to exist if only for the sake of benefiting the colonizers.

The third type of interaction between civilizations, “absorption and adaptation”, involves one civilization consciously borrowing ideas and institutions from other civilizations in its effort to improve upon its own civilization. The history of Japanese civilization, for example, is a history of constant borrowing of ideas and institutions from its surrounding civilizations, from India and China in earlier times and from Europe and North America in modern times. But in this case, as in others, the borrower does not simply imitate what others have cultivated; the borrower usually “absorbs and adapts” the ideas and institutions of other civilizations to suit its domestic environment.

The fourth type of interaction between civilizations is “exchange and cross-fertilization”, which is distinguished from the third type of “absorption and adaptation” in that it involves bilateral exchange of ideas and institutions between two civilizations. This does not mean, however, that the exchange of ideas and institutions takes place simultaneously for the two civilizations involved, for learning, transforming and adapting others’ ways of doing things to fit the domestic environment can be an elongated process, spread over centuries in some cases. Exchange of pottery techniques between East and West is an example of this type of interaction between civilizations.

Communication and Cross-Fertilization: Every civilization, while trying to carve out its own path of evolution, needs to learn from other civilizations if it is to sustain itself as an open system in an ever-changing environment. As Braudel aptly points out, “the history of civilizations, in fact, is the history of continual mutual borrowings over many centuries, despite which each civilization has kept its own original character.” (Braudel, Fernand, A History of Civilizations, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, p.8)

Mutual borrowings take place even between the colonizers and the colonized. Thus, while we tend to think of the British taking advantage of cheap supply of cotton from India in promoting their Industrial Revolution, the Indians, too, have borrowed from the British the fruits of Western science and technology, including the railroad system, and have learned about the Western notions of law and justice, the abolition of suttee being one outcome of such learning. On the other hand, it is thanks mostly to British scholars that we have come to know the Indian view of the world now known as Hinduism.

As an open system, civilization evolves and transforms itself through constant contact and interaction with its environment. Contact and interaction with other civilizations, according to Toynbee, often take the form of challenges and responses. (Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954) It is by accepting challenges from other civilizations and successfully responding to them that a civilization maintains its viability as a social system.

Challenges and responses, as the facts of life for every civilization, sustain life as well destroy it. In the history of civilizations, challenges and responses between civilizations have often taken the form of “conquest and subjugation” and “colonization and exploitation”, the first two types of interaction between civilizations discussed above. It goes without saying that these two types of interactions are destructive types of interactions, which must be eliminated if civilizations of the world are to evolve harmoniously by promoting communication and cross-fertilization.

A mixture of humility and confidence is needed if a civilization is to benefit from communication and cross-fertilization with other civilizations. Humility is needed because, as Durant clearly states, “no one of the civilizations known to us was the originator of any of the elements of civilization.” (Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935, p.533) On the other hand, confidence is needed if a civilization is to sustain itself, constantly exposed to challenges from other civilizations and from the natural environment: “Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity—enough to provide a little leisure. But far more, it requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.” (Clark, Kenneth, Civilization, New York: Harper & Row, 1969, p.4) If communication and cross-fertilization are to take place, all civilizations are required to keep proper balance between humility and confidence, for excessive humility on the part of one civilization invites domination by others while excessive confidence on the part of one civilization leads to contempt, if not rejection, of others.

Civilizing Civilizations in an Interdependent World: Is the civilizing of civilizations possible in the world of global interdependence, where challenges and responses between civilizations often take the form of violent clashes between them? Let us recall that civilization, in the sense of douceur de vivre, or “the sweetness of life”, was an eighteenth-century discovery of Western intellectuals such as Mirabeau, Voltaire and Diderot. The civilizing of the West took place, as Elias’ insightful study shows, during the process of state formation that followed the divisive feudal age. (Elias, Norbert, The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) While the sweetness of life was initially limited to the elite class of monarchs and aristocrats, the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent process of industrialization would spread the material comfort enjoyed by them by steadily increasing the members of the middle class, at least in the industrial nations of the world.

The danger facing civilizations of the world today is the fact that the two conditions—state formation and industrialization—which have contributed to the civilizing of the West and other industrial nations, are under threat by the forces of globalization in all spheres of social life. On the one hand, there is the decline of the nation-state as the center of social life. On the other, the growing gap between rich and poor diminishes the possibility of spreading the fruits of economic development equally among the nations of the world.

If communication and cross-fertilization are to benefit all the civilizations of the world, it is essential that each and every civilization become “civilized”—civilized not befitting the civilization in eighteenth-century Europe but befitting the civilization in a globally interdependent world of the twenty-first century. What, then, should be the content of civilized behavior in the world of global interdependence? As civilization is seen here as an open system defined in the space of interaction among climate, culture, economy, and polity, the civilizing of a civilization must take place in each of these four subsystems.

The industrial civilization of the past two and half centuries has been built on the aggressive exploitation of the natural environment. While this has enhanced the standards of living for some nations, no civilization should be allowed to follow the path of willful exploitation of the natural environment because the survival of the global community depends on the sustainability of that natural environment. What is needed is an environmental ethic that treats nature and all the things in it—even disease-causing micro organisms—not as our enemies to be conquered but as living systems with whom we share the interconnected system called nature.

To cultivate and develop civility in cultural life would require that the new conception of self as a relational being—with other individuals in the world as well as other things in the natural environment—replace the conception of self as an autonomous being. Civility in the conduct of economic life cannot be built on the aggressive kind of market capitalism as it undermines the stability of the global economy and widens the gap between rich and poor. What is needed is “enlightened capitalism” that regards material welfare not as an end but as a means to self-actualization, or enlightenment. Politically, civility requires participatory democracy in which everybody participates in the political process and does not surrender oneself to the wanton rule of the few.

Globalization in the world around us is changing the way in which challenges and responses between civilizations take place. For one thing, it is now possible for communication and cross-fertilization between civilizations to take place at the global level. There are some indications that challenges and responses in a globally interdependent world are giving rise to a global civilization of a sort—from awareness about our common fate in Spaceship Earth to universal demands for basic human rights. On the other hand, there are other kinds of changes that threaten the cohesion and stability of the world as a system of civilizations. These include ethnic conflicts, religious fundamentalism, and willful manipulation of the global financial markets.

Globalization is obviously a double-edged sword as we witness forces of both unification and fragmentation and tendencies towards both order and chaos. While there are constructive contacts between old rival civilizations, there are also destructive clashes between old and new civilizations, as pointed out by Huntington. (Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) Trite as it may sound, it is up to each and every civilization to take up the challenges of globalization and work out proper responses needed to transform itself into a more “civilized” civilization in a globally interdependent world of the twenty-first century.

Seven Interbeings

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh, which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay wrote in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear, to most people, totally unconnected—a sheet of paper and a cloud in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are”.

Technically speaking, “interbeing” can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation”, a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything “inter-is” with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of “interbeing” satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of “interbeing”.

The binary relation of “interbeing” also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing “inter-is” with some other thing, then the second thing “inter-is” with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of “interbeing” among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of “interbeing” further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud “inter-is” with rain and rain “inter-is” with trees, implying that a cloud “inter-is” with trees.

Given that the binary relation of “interbeing” satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage “inter-are”, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of “interbeing” in a poem entitled “Music”:

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of “interbeing” introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of “interbeing” repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term “interbeing”, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and non-being, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and non-being if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven”. In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death? 

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers: “Seven boys and girls are we;/ Two of us in the church-yard lie,/ Beneath the church-yard tree.” The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knew nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

* Written in appreciation of Thay’s inspiring and insightful dharma talks he gave during the 21-day retreat, ‘The Science of the Buddha’, held at Plum Village, June 1 - June 21, 2012.