I think our time is dangerous but magical. It’s the first time ever that our consciousness can travel back through all the ages of humankind. All stages of our evolution are accessible. All spiritual teachings are available. And simultaneously we are aware of the entire geography and ethnography of our diverse planet.
The last time we visited Plum Village, Dorit and I went to see those caves in Dordogne, where some of the earliest human beings left their record, and it was a revelation for me. I realized that I could feel an affinity with those people who lived twenty or thirty thousand years ago – that they were not so far away from us. This was a complete surprise – I wasn’t expecting it at all.
I find it wonderful, too, that the Vedas and the Upanishads, some of the oldest books in the world, are accessible. With a little training, we can learn the language, and come to love these mystical, intuitive hymns, prayers and teachings. The oldest of them give us a point of contact with an earlier age when humans still believed in the necessity and the efficacy of sacrifice. They felt that sacrifice played an essential part in the cycle by which food was created. They understood the interconnectedness of all things – the Dharma.
Then, as people began to settle in cities, and cities grew in size, some time around 3,000 years ago, we began to lose our affinity with nature and our sense of the connectedness of all life. In order to rediscover it, you had to leave the cities, go up into the Himalaya or the jungles. More and more people, in search of the spirituality that was slowly being forgotten, left their homes and departed the cities. They began to flock to the jungles and the mountains, seeking out hermits and sages. By doing so, they were leaving behind the safety that civilization offered, and embarking on a dangerous quest into the unknown.
That’s the period of history that gave us Shakyamuni, Mahavira, Lao Tsu, and others, and thanks to them we have managed to preserve something of the spirit of that earlier age, which otherwise might have been lost to us. But with these sages and their descendants there is a gradual shift from what David Frawley calls the symbolic language, of mantra and prayer, to a more rational language that was suited to the modern age, and to a people who had lost their former intuitive spirituality.
That period of around the middle of the first millenium BC must have been a critical time for humanity, a point of sandhi, or intersection between two distinct ages.
Our own period is surely a critical time too, for too many obvious reasons. Despite the unprecedented access to information and knowledge, it’s also a time when languages, species, ecosystems, primitive peoples and many other features are disappearing off the face of the earth. Soon, we will be able to know these only from documentary evidence. It may be the last time when we can physically step out of the life of the cities, like those sages did 2,500 years ago. Our global culture is now almost omnipresent. As it spreads, it colonizes and dominates; assimilating some things, but for the most part destroying diversity.
The four aims or basic conditions of human life were defined by the early Hindus as Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Dharma was the law that bound us not only to each other but to all of creation. Artha meant wealth; material needs. Kama means desire, which I think implies the value and interest we derive from being alive, the meaning we invest in it. Moksha is interesting, because it means the ability to liberate oneself from Dharma (in its human aspect), Artha and Kama – it says that as humans we are fundamentally free, can see beyond the petty conditions of life, etc. When the aspirants of the first millenium BC left the cities, they were sacrificing at least the accepted view of Dharma, Artha and Kama, while emphasizing Moksha.
I think the danger of the flat, characterless, uniform, global era we are entering is that it could undermine these basic conditions of life, especially the Moksha bit – the part that allows us to see beyond the treadmill.
If physical escape is impossible, mental transformation must be the way. We will need to enable people who are outwardly dominated to become inwardly free. This is not necessarily easier. The mental pattern that is dominating us is the binary thinking underlying our technology, and the tendency to attribute material, face value meanings on objects and people. To break free of it we may like to go back and contemplate those Vedic hymns and prayers, or revisit the early cave paintings in Dordogne.
In other words, we will need to rediscover the symbolic connections between the physical world in which we live and the hidden, transcendent reality.