Original Title in English
by Author: Dillon Masters
Publisher: JJ Publishing (Ed. July 2011)
Vietnamese eBook: Dharma Space / YourVietBooks.com
Translation by Tuong Vi, Anh Tho
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We are birthed in pain. We die in pain, and in between we move and grow imperceptibly from one to the other. So it is with every phenomenal creature from the smallest to the largest, regardless of distinction. And so it is with the institutions we create from families to communities, cultures, and nations. All of it goes through the very same process of growth.
It happens in baby steps so subtle that we don’t even notice the progression—youth to adolescence to young adulthood, onward to maturity and a final cessation. The changes are continuous and go unnoticed except when extended absences are encountered. And then we see with amazement what has been ongoing. Cultures go through the same growth process, and it is always shocking and painful when the end game begins to approach.
It has been nearly 40 years since I first read The Limits to Growth, an insightful book commissioned by the Club of Rome (CoR). For those who don’t know, or have forgotten, the Club was put together in 1968 at David Rockefeller’s estate in Bellagio, Italy. The CoR describes itself as “a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity.”
I was a mere 28 years old at the time when the Club was formed but was greatly affected by the message of The Limits to Growth. The Club states that its mission is “to act as a global catalyst for change through the identification and analysis of the crucial problems facing humanity and the communication of such problems to the most important public and private decision makers as well as to the general public.”
The authors of Limits examined five interrelated variables based on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described the patterns of increase among the variables and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly.
The variables were: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that could be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables.
A concluding section of the book laid out our collective choices at that juncture nearly 40 years ago; either to continue unabated on an unsustainable path and experience unacceptable consequences, or to alter our patterns in a more moderate and distributed fashion.
There have been two updates since then. One came in 2004 with the Chelsea Green Publishing Company and Earthscan (under the name Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). The second came in 2008 when Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia published a paper titled A Comparison of “The Limits to Growth” with Thirty Years of Reality. The Turner report compared the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production, and pollution were all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.
The movement since that first point has likewise advanced in steady progression along the track suggested by the book. When Limits first came out, few paid it much attention. Nixon was our president and we were coming out of the Vietnam War. Not many were interested in long views. We were absorbed with licking our wounds and dealing with the Watergate scandal. Both Watergate and the War collectively traumatized us, and these were ripping our nation apart.
But having personally struggled to survive two years of conflict in Vietnam as a Marine, I was very aware of distant drumbeats. So I read Limits and was disturbed. Perhaps I was more attuned because of my struggle. Who can say? Nevertheless what I read made a lot of sense and it was frightening.
I began to observe what was taking place in our nation and around the world when looked at through the lens provided by Limits and it was clear that what had been predicted was unfolding step by step.
Much has changed in the 40 years since then. Not only is my body undergoing advancing failure, but so is our nation. People don’t like to acknowledge approaching failure, either for themselves or for their culture, but no single person or single culture has survived forever.
Growth toward ultimate failure goes with the territory.
Attendant to this process is the inevitable acquisition of material property. It happens with individuals, and it happens with the cultures we create. When we examine this behavior, we must question what is it about being human that compels us, like rushing lemmings, to acquire more and more to the point of excess and conspicuous consumption. When do we have enough and where is the dividing line between enough and hoarding, between sufficiency and waste?
As we struggle in 2011 to regain our footing and recover from a long and painful economic downturn, it is natural to break out the magnifying glass and consider where and how we might trim the fat from governmental bureaucracies. The war of values and blame is inevitable, and it’s good to acknowledge that the government is simply a collection of individuals conducting themselves as we do. They and we have a tendency to hoard and retain what may have made sense at some earlier point but does no longer.
Nobody—not individuals and not organizations readily gives up hard earned stuff. So the question, the critical question in the necessary trimming, is why? Why do we find it so hard to let go of the stuff? What is the fundamental motivation that compels us to collect it in the first place? A rainy-day fund? Hardcore greed? Selfishness?
What? Clearly, individually and collectively we do this because we experience something lacking and must believe that further acquisitions will somehow fill a sensed void. All of us are seeking fulfillment, at a great cost. So the question must be asked, “How is this path working out?” Do we experience advances in fulfillment, or the opposite?
Two snapshots 40 years apart will provide us with a view arising from an extended absence.
In 1972 the annual median family income stood at $11,116 ($9,697 in current dollars). The cost of a new home was $40,000. A new car was $4,599, and a gallon of gas was $.36. The federal debt stood at the scary level of $435.9 billon and we lived on average 71.2 years. And while then, as now, everyone carped about paying taxes; the average was 30% for the combination of Federal, State and local taxes. Maybe because there wasn’t such an abundance of adult toys back then few people seemed so compelled to own the very latest gadget.
By 2009 we were living longer. By then our life expectancy was 78.1 years of age but that didn’t mean the average person was living better. The federal debt had risen to $12,300 billion
(28 times as great as 37 years earlier). What $1.00 bought in 1972 had risen in cost to $5.50 by 2009. Median family incomes had risen to $46,326 and while that sounds like a meaningful increase it wasn’t enough to keep pace with rising consumer prices.
The year before, due to shaky business practices, the entire world held its breath as Wall Street shuddered on the brink only to be bailed out with a massive infusion of public funding. And Detroit followed on the heels of Wall Street, with $25 billion required to keep the American auto industry from failing and jeopardizing the jobsand lives 13 million Americans.
We had been waging two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) since 2003 that had cost us
over $1 trillion and by 2010 the federal debt stood at $13 trillion. Thirteen million workers were unemployed and roughly 4 million U.S. homeowners were 90 days or more delinquent on their mortgages or in actual foreclosure proceedings. It was the longest and most protracted economic downturn since the Great Depression and meltdown seemed clearly in sight.
If these statistics are not alarming enough it is becoming more and more evident that the wealth of our nation is increasingly concentrated at the top, and decimating the long held tax base of a vanishing Middle Class.
According to a recent study,1 4 years ago the share of household income held by the top 10% of the population stood at 49.7%, higher than any time since 1917 and even surpassing 1928, the peak of the stock market bubble just preceding the Great Depression.
The gap between the super wealthy and the burgeoning poor is at an all time high. This disparity, as measured and reported by the Gini coefficient shows that the US is third highest among measured nations, exceeded only by Hong Kong and Singapore.
Further evidence pointing to the shrinking Middle Class has been reported by Yahoo Finance which said (among various things) that 66% of income growth between 2001 and 2007 came from the top 1% of Americans, over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009 (representing a 32% increase from the previous year), the top 1% of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did 15 years ago, and despite the economic crisis of the past few years, the number of millionaires rose 16% in 2009.
This is not unexpected when you consider the following—In 1950 the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck compared to the average worker’s paycheck stood at 30 to 1.
Since 2000 that ratio has exploded to 300-500 to 1. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the Middle Class is gradually sinking into the abyss.
Like the Uncle Remus tar-baby story, the more we struggled the stucker we got. People were beginning to panic. Fear was in the wind with blatant greed and self-serving possessiveness were becoming increasingly evident.
As the panic spread, one side became more and more dug in with various groups opposing perceived adversaries with inflammatory rhetoric and orchestrated acts of violence. What had taken decades to construct began to come unraveled. Unions were dismantled. Collective bargaining rights were shredded. Funding for agencies responsible for overseeing environmental protections was chopped. Opposing politicians pounded their chests and vented indignation and platitudes, promising to do what nobody else could. Vested interests struggled to hold on to hard-won turf. Financial faucets were screwed down tight, investment spending began to dry up, consumers slowed their spending patterns and political unity was ripped apart with one biggie after another flailing about like a dying chicken.
What the The Limits to Growth had predicted would happen if we didn’t change our ways had ripened during the 40 ensuing years and the glue of social harmony began to melt. We were distracted. We didn’t pay attention, and it was now time to pay the piper for our excesses. We had chased the rabbit and discovered where the chase leads, and there was no turning back the clock. Nobody can escape the impact of his or her choices, either individually or collectively. So now we must pay. And if we get through the pain perhaps we can learn something worthwhile about genuine value, the kind that is not linked to never-ending acquisitions of constantly eroding stuff, which requires more and more excess.
What you’re about to read is one person’s grasp of a better way: a way of the heart rather than a way of material possessions. There was a time when I was as much entangled in this march to oblivion as anyone else. High living with trips around the world, summers on Fire Island, jetting off to the Caribbean Islands, dining out at expensive restaurants, and dropping a bundle on lavish clothing gave me a sense of importance. The excessive lifestyle was fun for a time, but little by little I began to notice something: The more I had, the more I sensed a need for more. It was seductive and very much like a drug. As my level of excess grew, each indulgent increment meant less and less, but I was like the dog in the manger: selfish and reluctant to let any of my stuff go.
Honestly, I was an emotional hoarder simply because at some deep place within I never knew who I was, and the inherent presumption in this entire arrangement was the notion that more was better. What I found out was that this “more” needed to be overturned. When I finally discovered who I was, less became best.
The discovery didn’t happen instantly. One day I realized that I was possessed by my possessions. I was bored with life, and my sense of joy was falling in direct proportion to the level of rising greed. Eventually this track imploded and I did a desperate thing: I gave it all away and left that way of life, which was not bringing me what I wanted. I didn’t know what else to do, but I found Zen and this, after some time, brought me what I was seeking all along.
I think what I wanted is the same thing that everyone wants—happiness, solidity, intelligence, lack of fear, health (emotional, spiritual…the whole thing), and quality relationships. Isn’t that what everyone wants? I’m just guessing but I think it is.
When you mention Zen to most people who don’t know what it is, the eyebrow arches and the red light of caution kicks in. In truth, Zen simply means meditation of a particular kind that, if routinely practiced delivers the qualities of life stated above. I’m not talking about some escape into the mountains, wearing flowing robes, chanting in some foreign language and hanging out among people you’d rather not be seen with.
Zen, in a pure sense, is not an esoteric religious matter. It is a psycho-spiritual discipline that builds a genuine grasp of who you really are, rewires your brain to enhance compassion and intelligence, and diminishes the part of your brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. It is not a “pop-a-pill-instant-nirvana” proposition.
To reap the benefits it’s necessary to practice, but that is true for anything. If you want to be a marathon champion, you need to start slow and build up gradually with routine practice. Your body adapts slowly. It is the same with Zen, only it’s your mind that adapts. You get back in proportion to the time and energy you invest. Learning the essential skill is not difficult. The hard part is rearranging your life style to practice routinely and then having the requisite discipline to get rid of the chaff and find the kernels of worth within.
I have found that few people are willing to make this adjustment. Instead they stay wedded to that path to oblivion, apparently believing that just around the corner lies what they are seeking, but never found “yet”.
For such people more of the same draws them tighter and tighter into the circle of possessions, with less and less payoff. And because the lure involves so many, the process of depletion (just like Limits foretold) is speeding up. The craving toward the end is consuming and paranoid.
Perhaps people simply never understood what Zen really is, and it is for such people that I write here.
Self-esteem has become the gold standard by which we measure our lives; if this premise were established on solid ground, there would be nothing wrong with that. Genuine self-esteem emanates from who we really are down deep.
However, that is not the way in which this notion is ordinarily understood. This self is a mirage: a ghost or phantasm we have come to know as an ego. An ego, by definition is an image (selfimage)—an idea we hold about ourselves and like all ideas it is vulnerable and dependent.
We dress this idea up with an infinite wardrobe, the more expensive and luxurious the better. What does it matter if we spend a couple of thousand on a pair of shoes? It enhances our image and makes us feel good (for a moment). What does it matter if we buy a house, with all of the latest bells and whistles, for a couple of million? It sends a statement to our friends and associates that we’re important and again enhances our image.
What is the harm of giving excessive tax breaks to the wealthy, while at the same time we cut off those most in need? It aligns us with the “right people” who are now indebted to us and again reinforces our image. The harm in such excess is that all of it is geared toward embellishing a ghost and keeps us ignorant of our true worth, which lies hidden beneath this mirage.
Such activity does nothing for establishing our true worth. It simply perpetuates a lie that our worth is equivalent to excess and the pursuit of this lie is doing precisely what Limits said would occur.
At this stage in the human journey, the whole world seems to be teetering at a precarious balance point. People across the entire Middle East are erupting in anger based on the premise that political freedom is the answer. After decades, the people of China and India have kicked into high gear and are carving off their own slice of the good life.
In the meantime, the western world, (Europe and the United States) having enjoyed the good life, is now discovering the emptiness and unaffordability of the constant pursuit of more. True freedom is not free when it entails the endless pursuit of material excess.
Freedom and happiness are matters of the heart and of the mind. You can’t buy them or get them from politicians. If they don’t come from within, they won’t come at all. If we haven’t learned that lesson yet, we are destined to keep inheriting the wind and will pay the ultimate price.
The world is not an inherently scary place. It is a joyous and abundant place. We don’t have to live a life of fear and anxiety and spending billions upon billions on more and more sophisticated weaponry and more and more prisons to house people who never received enough to be well.
The world becomes a scary place because we make it that way, and we make it that way because we hoodwink ourselves with the flawed notion that more is better. More is not better. Less is best, but only once you find what you desire within yourself.
You might wonder about my motivation for writing this book. The answer is simple: I care about a better quality of life for those I love. My life, like the culture I live in, is coming to an end. What happens in the years to come won’t affect me, but it will affect my loved ones who continue on after I am gone. And among the wide array of gifts, that Zen has given to me is the awareness that we collectively create and share our world.
So in a certain sense you could say that my motive is selfish. I don’t know the vast majority of people with whom I share this world, and probably wouldn’t like many of them. But this I know: We either profit together or we go down together. Nobody is an island. We are joined together, like it or not. So for my loved ones to prosper, you too must prosper. Life and true love are unconditional. It’s a package deal.
Gautama’s truth is not my truth. It belongs to humanity.
Don’t we already have enough Zen literature, written by worthy advocates? Ordinarily, Zen texts available today remain esoteric, and because of that and widespread misunderstandings, the Dharma has not gained critical mass. What is needed is a more accessible and user-friendly form that is neither foreign nor abstruse.
I write as a regular person for regular people and I am persuaded both that Gautama’s truth is life-transforming and that too few know to make a difference. The reason Zen has lived as long as it has is because it has adapted and met people where they live. If that adaptation ceases, Zen will pass into obscurity and the world will be a poorer place.
(Note from Anh Tho: Dillon Masters is the Author of the Dharma Space Series. His wishes is to benefit the Vietnamese community of his work, as a token to spread the Dharma to a country he once was involved in).
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