I’d like to start this off with a story one of our Dutch theosophical teacher sometimes tells. Ronald Engelse was frequently at Saanen to hear Jiddu Krishnamurti talk. Krishnamurti would say, in his talks, that one should observe everything, the sky, the mountains, the grass… After a lecture like that, what did Ronald see people do? He saw them look at the mountain, look at the sky, look at the grass – but not see anything else. They had not learned to observe without judgement, but were merely following ‘orders’.
There’s a beautiful flowering tree outside my window. It has white spring flowers amongst the first green leaves of the season. At the same time my new upstairs neighbour is still drilling in his walls every once in a while – which gives an annoying noise. Observing both – I like the one, don’t like the other. Likes and dislikes shape my world – as they do most people. Unfortunately the negative is usually harder to ignore. This is why the yoga tradition teaches that we should grow beyond like and dislike – to just observe. Not shutting away what is, nor accepting it, but just letting it be.
As some of you may know, I lived in the US for a year when I was a child. I was 12 and went with my family to Austin Texas where my dad was to educate himself so he could be a computer scientist. Us children went to school. Aside from the inevitable culture shock and having to learn a new language (which is not so different from Dutch to make it hard), the thing that strikes me as the most important thing I learned there – in one of the richest neighborhoods of Austin Texas – was poverty. One of my friends, it turned out, lived in a trailer. To be precise, she lived in a trailer on the estate of a very rich family – whose pool her father kept clean. This is a very normal story by American standards. My friend was, in a sense, lucky to live there – as it meant she could go to a good school. But I had never heard of a whole family living in a trailer. The poorest people I’d known in The Netherlands had still had a bedroom for every child. The richest people I had known did not even have a swimming pool – and in the Netherlands I went to school with kids who were considered rich, but also with kids who were near the bottom rung of Dutch society.
One of the things Radha Burnier (president of the Theosophical Society) keeps on writing about in her editorials for The Theosophist is the inequality in the world. That luxeries are not to be taken for granted. That health care should not be considered a right only for the rich. That the poor suffer too. That animals too should be taken into consideration. Living in India she sees poverty around her daily. She’s used her influence to strengthen the work of the Theosophical Order of Service there, which keeps a school for women to learn a trade – among other things.
Yet the other day she wrote that the essential work of the Theosophical Society goes beyond all that. It goes beyond trying to make this world a better place – however worthy and necessary that work may be. If anybody has a right to say that without sounding like she’s advocating indifference – it’s Radha Burnier. But then – what is she saying?
I think she’s saying that the ultimate work of spiritual growth (or human regeneration) is more important than practical work. The reason is probably simple: ‘good works’ done from ignorance will have negative results mixed among the good. Only when there is wisdom can any work have only the good results one hopes for – and even then, in this world of imperfections – it’s not very likely that only good comes from it.
This does not mean that good works should not be attempted – but a bit of humility would be good while we try. Perhaps this brings me back to my introduction – how observant are we? Perhaps I was lucky to come across poverty at twelve, instead of having been taught (implicitly) to ignore it for most of my life. Of course, compared to the people living on the streets of Chennai, my friend was actually quite well taken care of. She had a roof over her head – enough food (I think) and decent education. And she was not in the position of most of my other schoolmates back then: of living a life which ignored the realities of most of their contemporaries. Being an immigrants child, she something of South America. Having one foot in her parents world and one in the rich world of school, she grew up learning about the complexities of life.
In other words: she was not being spoiled. Her life was not one in which the superficial could take hold from the start – because the basic necessities of life were always in her face.
It’s almost funny that the big thing in spirituality these days is awareness, when all our modern technology makes it so easy to not be aware. DVD’s, computer games, twitter, cell phones – they are all geared towards keeping our senses busy – and with them our brains. That’s probably precisely it though – we are aware something is missing – so we try to ‘practice awareness’. And in the meantime people are losing their jobs while others are still raking in money – even if being rich now means having about half the amount of dollars one had 2 years ago.
Part of what I’m saying is: this is nothing new. There has been a very big divide within American society between rich and poor for as long as I’ve been aware of US society. I’m afraid it’s only gotten bigger. And every time people vote for a politician who says they will cut taxes, they vote for a politician who will not be able to keep benefits at a level high enough to pay the rent.
I do wonder will Obama be able to change the pattern of US citizens not trusting their government with their money? that duality – and it is one – means the government and it’s people can not work together.
Poverty and riches. Do the rich have a duty to part with their money so the multitude can eat and sleep with a roof over their heads?
The pessimist in me says that as long as human nature doesn’t change, human structures can’t be perfect. There will always be those using them for their own personal gain, instead of the general good. The question is – and it’s clear humanity has not found an answer to this question yet – what system leads to the least sorrow? What system protects our children best? What system allows the flowering of humanity best?
But in the meantime the best any of us can do is… our duty. And the more we have, the higher the duty that calls. But please don’t be like my classmates in that school years ago and ignore the poverty right beside you. Seeing it, observing what is, means that when an opportunity for right action comes, it will not be lost. After all:
Sow kindly acts and thou shalt reap their fruition. Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.
Shalt thou abstain from action? Not so shall gain thy soul her freedom. To reach Nirvana one must reach Self-Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge is of loving deeds the child.