We are all aware that the pace of life gets faster and faster. Once upon a time, if one worked in an office, producing half a dozen letters might be a day’s work. Now, by electronic mail, one might deal with fifty items in a day. Many of the things we do day to day have become more complicated. We interact with computers and with call centres and find ourselves faced with preprogrammed procedures where formerly we had a human conversation. Even when there is a human being on the other end they have to operate in a programmed way. While such procedures are rationally designed to deal efficiently with the normal cases, they are essentially blind. Life is not only becoming faster, it is becoming less personal. The avid that we have to cope with now is not just within the individual, it is in the system. To a greater and greater extent, we have to fit into the ways of machines rather than being their masters.
Buddhism should help one to live a more noble life in the real world. It is commonly presented as a path to becoming a more ideal type of person, but such radical self-transformation is rare and it is unrealistic to expect that it will become a norm. The question arises whether the wisdom and advice of Buddha still works in a world such as we live in today. When the ordinary citizen is becoming, in so many ways, a cog in a big machine, is it still possible for that person to live a wholesome, wholehearted, dignified life? Certainly many of the things that an average commuter has to put up with in the course of a normal working day do not fit the prototypical idea of dignified existence. Can inner peace survive in such a climate?
Of course, there remains the route of total renunciation. It is still just about possible to give it all up and leave the rat race, but even this is by no means a simple option. Certainly monks and nuns living in modern monastic institutions are not generally fulfilling this ideal. The institution itself has to be economically viable and generally that means that it has to be run as a business. Nor is being a hermit easy to accomplish in modern conditions.
Pureland Buddhism is generally not focussed upon the renunciant ideal in its full form. The aim, rather, is to live in simple faith in the midst of things as one finds them. The awakening envisaged in this approach has more to do with acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and failings than the accomplishment of some kind of purity or perfection.
How then can we reflect the Buddha’s gentle smile in the modern world? There is surely still a place for kindness, humility, gentleness, generosity and gratitude. If we have faith that the Buddhas are still pouring out their blessings, like Quan Yin emptying her vase with free abandon, then we will find that there are innumerable opportunities for true humanity to blossom within the interstices of our programmed existences. Then we can continue to walk lightly upon the earth and not be squashed by the weight of petty and major obligations to which we are chained in our complex society. We can keep the larger picture somewhere in view.
If we treasure simplicity and do not unnecessarily complicate our existence, the burden will be lighter. If we treasure both friendship and solitude, we will find opportunities for spiritual refreshment. If we have faith, then we can let go of many worries and take things as they come, trusting that there are always deeper purposes at work. However complex the system within which we live our lives, there is always some space, some emptiness, pauses in which a simple prayer may return us to peace and bliss. Society may be increasingly like a driver asleep in the fast lane, but we can wake up.