Some may be put off by this question, as Buddhism is usually thought of as a religion. But Buddha was primarily a student of human nature, as were two other sages of antiquity, Lao Tzu and Confucius. As with these other men, a religion was created in Buddha’s name. But anyone can safely use Buddha’s insights, which are psychologically profound, without interfering with his or her own spiritual practice.
Buddhists are generally gentle, respectful people. But when observing humanity, Buddhists often consider that what they are seeing is a form of mass delusion. I realize that this is a stark and troubling notion, one requiring convincing evidence.
A central notion within Buddhism is Non-Duality. This concept is tricky, so we will look at a number of different examples. The most obvious example of Duality is the Good Guys/Bad Guys theme that is so common in art and literature. Think John Wayne and James Bond movies, and some Country and Western music.
Our socialization is dominated by dualist thinking. Patriotism, when it’s blind, is the most troublesome dualist belief that we are socialized to honor. Because patriotism is instilled so deeply during childhood, if one can’t allow oneself to question and/or criticize the government (as that is considered unpatriotic, a.k.a. blind patriotism) it is difficult to judge the merits of any public policy, and especially a war. Citizens of almost all countries are socialized to be patriotic without question.
I listened to Donald Trump’s speech after Hillary conceded, and I was surprised when someone yelled – “Kill Obama.” Without doubt Mr. Trump has played to such sentiments. And in every society there are people, like the man yelling his threat, who are disturbed and prone to violence. But it’s a big problem when such people are allowed to act on their violent urges.
This can be seen in the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Germany post WWI was a desperate place, with hyper inflation resulting from war damage, the Depression and punitive war reparations required by the Treaty of Versailles. The German people, who are well educated and culturally sophisticated, succumbed to the siren song of blind patriotism, acquiescing to authoritarianism and militarism, the twin demons of dualism.
When these forces capture a society, those who are judgmental and have violent tendencies find their way into positions of power. Such people exist in every society and age, but within certain historical contexts they are encouraged, and allowed to have power and authority.
Authoritarianism and militarism are only possible via dualist thinking. Wars, hot or cold, are dualist phenomena. WWII on the German side was possible because many Germans indulged in dualist beliefs. We/They beliefs directed toward designated Enemies (external and internal) were fostered and celebrated with great pomp and ceremony, with the primary internal enemy being the Jews.
But the absurdity of dualist beliefs becomes obvious, once one has transcended blind patriotism. To do so, one must realize its basic flaw. A reasonable expectation of the citizens of any society is that they should support the policies of the state, but only when those policies are both fair and appropriate. In contrast, blind patriotism demands allegiance without question.
I’m reading a good book, recommended by a fellow social worker, “The Body Keeps the Score” by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (b. 1943). Van der Kolk begins his book about the profound and pernicious effects of psychic trauma with the story of a platoon leader in Viet Nam, who suffered greatly after his platoon was ambushed. He watched as every other soldier in the platoon was shot, and several were killed, including his best friend.
Sometime later he went ballistic, attacked a village murdering a number of women and children. Van der Kolk treated him for PTSD, and his suffering was profound, as one can imagine. I mention this unfortunate story because it was only possible because of dualist thinking. Dualist thinking resulting from unquestioned patriotism, and the additional dualist socialization received by military personnel, is dense and powerful.
Non-duality can be a tricky concept. Each of us has allegiances and identifications that are part of who we are. I’m a man, a Caucasian, a nurse practitioner and social worker, a Quaker, a socialist and a Buddhist. It would be silly of me to deny my membership in these categories, which are also dualities, as every category has its own reciprocal. But dualities are only problematic when members of another group or category are held to be inadequate, dangerous and/or inferior. But this is what happens so often in politics, and always happens in war.
Dualist belief has caused much unfortunate history. And this includes the Coup d’Etat that occurred on November 22, 1963. How and why JFK was assassinated is still considered to be very controversial. But it’s a scientific question, one that’s been carefully examined by many researchers. The strong consensus among those scholars is that certain rogue elements of the U.S. government, in the CIA and the Pentagon, organized the murder, utilizing criminals, certain members of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community and several others to commit the act. And Allen Dulles was likely at the very center of the conspiracy.
The JFK assassination was caused by duality. Post the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK had a change of heart regarding the Cold War. He continued to communicate discretely with both Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, and was working with both men to soften relations. JFK communicated his intention to withdraw our advisors from Viet Nam, and end our involvement there, which began covertly shortly after WWII in assistance to the French.
Researchers believe that these JFK policy changes prompted his murder, by those in the CIA and Pentagon who couldn’t tolerate the changes. In my opinion the best book on this history is by James Douglass: “JFK and the Unspeakable.” How was dualist belief responsible for JFK’s murder? Because his killers believed so strongly in a dualist reality, in the unalloyed evil of enemies. They were willing to murder JFK because he was seeking a limited accommodation with our enemies, because he was against further war in Viet Nam and because he intended to rein in and civilize the CIA. The shadow of JFK’s assassination still profoundly shapes our political and social realities today.
One difficulty that some people have with non-duality is that it seems to negate what’s so obvious, that we each belong to many different groups, and that different categories of people (Cubs Fans!) are also real. Non-duality does not deny these realities. Rather, it fosters an increased awareness of the great dangers attendant to we/they thinking. The dominance of such thinking is why Buddhists consider that we are caught in a mass delusion. To be a Buddha simply means to be awake, and not in the thrall of mass delusions. Anyone can be a Buddha.