Coming one after another, the British vote on Brexit and the American election of Donald Trump as president surprised many commentators, perhaps especially political and economic elites. With hindsight, professional commentators have offered a number of explanations and insights about these surprise results: they reflect the economic dissatisfaction of those left behind by globalisation; they are the rejection of politics as usual; they are the backlash of white voters against increasing multiculturalism. There may be truth in all of these observations, but in my mind the most noteworthy aspect of the electoral contests is that they revealed an increasingly ‘us versus them’ worldview among voters. This understanding also describes the wave of nationalist sentiment sweeping over Europe and the success of the nationalist One Nation Party in the most recent Australian federal election. I don’t want to examine the merits or otherwise of each position or candidate in this article. Instead, let me outline one of the dominant themes of these electoral contests: a national ‘Self’ was understood to be under threat from an ‘Other’. For the British, the perceived threat was European bureaucracy, while for the Americans it was China. In all of the countries affected, the spectre of unchecked immigration of ‘Others’ loomed large, be they Syrians, Mexicans or Muslims. We don’t need a great imagination to suggest that the theme of a national ‘Self’ being under threat gained currency easily in populations composed of people who felt their individual ‘Selves’ to be imperilled.
Buddhist thought has a long history of dissecting the notion of an individual ‘Self’, and breaking down the barriers between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’. Some Buddhists even vow to defer enlightenment until all beings are enlightened. These people have a clear understanding that we are all in this together. If this is true for us as individuals, it is also true for us as communities, cultures, faiths and nations. We will rise or fall together as a global community.
We don’t need Buddhism to reach these conclusions, though. Using a modern Western perspective to survey the biggest, potentially existential, problems facing humanity indicates that most or all require international cooperation. Mitigating climate change demands action from every country. Arms proliferation cannot be solved unilaterally, even as Trump suggests a new nuclear arms race. The rapid loss of biodiversity, which may now be at the same rate as during the extinction of the dinosaurs, cannot be stopped by any one country alone. Violent extremism has at its core an emphasis on what separates rather than what unites. In a world with enough material wealth for all, poverty is also a symptom of division.
All major religions and Indigenous traditions have at least the kernel of an appreciation of interdependence that practitioners can use to understand that the global community will rise or fall together. The important thing is that we all come to this understanding, not the route by which we reach it. The realisation that there are many paths to the same destination, for me at least, is an important step in dissolving the boundaries of my own ‘Self’. While there may be many routes to a genuine understanding of how to our interconnection with each other and the planet, most of us still have further to travel to reach that destination. BODHI is, among other things, a community of people headed in that direction by alleviating suffering through aid, and just as importantly, helping to bridge cultural and national divides to remind everyone involved of our shared humanity.