I am a Taoist monk who grew up in a secular Jewish household, second generation American on my father’s side, fourth on my mother’s. Family luminaries include a New York State governor, a TV house-call doctor, and a co-founder of the Council on Foreign Relations. I am old enough to remember Cold War atomic bomb drills, the Gemini space capsule, Martin Luther King’s visionary speeches, and, more personally, routine muggings by roving New York City street gangs. Despite the latter encounters, I had the privilege of an Ivy League education and enjoyed successful positions in a variety of fields before being ordained in China. I not only believed in the American Dream; I lived it.
These days, pursuant to my calling, I travel back and forth often between the US and East and Southeast Asia. Often the only Western face in a meeting, hotel, museum or town, I’m becoming increasingly aware that while many still consider America the center of the world, the impending implosion of that dream may be leading us down a path to global irrelevancy. We are almost insouciantly falling behind in every area from technology and social development to research and environment. As violence is never a long-term answer and mutually assured destruction remains a real and painful threat, even our powerful military may be insufficient to preserve our position.
As I write this I am traveling on a 200-mph train from the north of China to the south. From here, (it would be nice if we had trains like this, by the way) America appears skewered on a trident of its own making, one tine apiece for environmental catastrophe, national anger, and threatened civil rights.
The first tine is the one I take the most seriously because on a poisonous, uninhabitable planet, concepts such race, nationality, religion, and even civilization are no more than quaint indulgences. It is less the greed of Big Oil than it is our fundamentalism—denied by so many of us yet so obvious to the rest of the world—that underlies our environmental problems. Whether such fundamentalism takes the form of ardent materialism or the religious belief that our particular brand of violent monkey has been gifted the planet by divine dispensation, the garbage island off Hawaii is no cause for concern, nor is climate change, fracking, strip mining, arctic drilling, the rape of the (rising) oceans, the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps, the rampant razing of forests, or even the sixth great extinction since the Earth was spit out by the sun. I understand that myths and legends—including the ones we tell about ourselves—ease the mortal pains of living, aging, and dying. I understand how concocting supernatural deities can make us feel loved and important, I’m a monk in a religion rife with them, after all, but for pity’s sake we have to wake up to the consequences of these beliefs before it is too late.
This morning I watched a bride and groom take photos in a patch of gray-green that passes for a park, the hem of the bride’s dress soaked in toxic mud, the sky so thick with particulate matter it seemed to be raining even though it wasn’t. Outside my train window is a thousand-mile apocalyptic landscape of burned-out factories, trash heaps, ponds and lakes devoid of fish, rivers and streams virtually glowing with heavy metals, gigantic-but-empty housing developments, and crowded communities burning paper to stay warm as snow begins to fall. Everything here is about unbridled growth, development at any cost, buildings with haywire electrics, and façades without substance—the drywall fiasco magnified beyond belief. In many places in China, not even the trees can draw a breath.
China’s war on the environment is an incidental consequence of growth; our own war is a deliberate flaunting of natural law. China is ahead of us on the curve of destruction. Few Americans realize the magnitude of the disaster here, how Earth’s very survival hangs in the balance of how this country handles their problem. If more of us knew and understood this, I feel certain we would be greatly dissatisfied with any existing environmental accord, would be rushing to help, and would make conservation the primary job of government.
At the same time, everything old is authentic here (that’s the magic that keeps bringing me back), while everything new is either a copy or a sham. Despite a fascinating history and amazing culture, it has been half a millennium since China has been as good as we are right now at original thinking. The Chinese cleanup has begun though, and while it will take decades at least, fortunes will be made in the effort and cutting-edge technology employed.
The second tine of our self-destructive trident is anger. There are few topics as current and frequently mentioned in the media as the hostile and intolerant divisions in our country. Whether those divisions be between blacks and whites, rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, or between people of different faiths, our national vibe is so furious that road rage, drive-by shootings, and mass murders (even of children) have actually become part of our everyday lives. Jammed among the professional snorers on this Chinese train, it occurs to me that if we Americans had to experience some of this continent’s challenges—the population density, the repressive government, the environmental collapse—our anger would burn so quickly and so hot we would extinguish ourselves in some kind of Yankee zombie apocalypse.
Wherefrom this great rage? How is that people in countries like Cuba, where there is so much less freedom, and Laos and Sri Lanka, where there is such material lack, can have so much more equanimity than we do and can simply be happier on a day-to-day basis? Is it their Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation and karma, the notion that this is only one life among many that helps so much? If it were that, logic would dictate that the belief in a pleasant afterlife, heaven, would offer Judeo-Christians the same succor and perspective.
Even after the Great Recession, we still enjoy levels of comfort and abundance that are the envy of the world, yet we still have not learned that money does not equal happiness. Spending time here in China shows me it is okay to accept limits for the good of others and our country as a whole. Could we please remember that when we lose that perspective we lose our balance and when we lose our balance we risk abandoning our glorious American Experiment? Staring at our own navels too long not only makes us unhappy, it also affords foreign dictators the opportunity to make world-conquering chess moves.
My guess is that our anger comes mostly from cognitive dissonance, from the distance between what we think we should have and what we do have, between who we think we should be and who we actually are. Could it be that the American Dream is pernicious rather than precious, that setting such high levels of expectations in the realms of luxury, status, and personal achievement actually causes us more pain than pleasure? Could it be that the deluge of information we construe as a sign of an advanced society is actually a source of manipulation that ends up depriving us of the quiet time we need to equilibrate and be healthy?
More, could it be that the pace of life of which we are so proud is actually so stressful it makes us perennially mad? There is plenty of strife, to be sure, but whether in small villages or in cities bigger than our biggest all put together, there is also a sympathetic social symphony that appears chaotic yet somehow works. People drive a lot more slowly here, and everywhere save perhaps Beijing and Shanghai, they walk more slowly, too. They routinely bump into each other on buses and may even push each other out of the way to get ahead in line, yet nobody gets shot for those things and by comparison to things in America, tempers rarely flare. Being in China provides a perspective I wish were available to more of us. It reminds me that slowing down is healthier, and that when we do speed up, we don’t need to kill each over parking spaces and traffic lanes.
America’s much-vaunted diversity, which has always been a fount of creative energy and strength, lately seems to inspire in some people the same emotion that spurs a truck driver to run over a turtle on the road just to hear the shell pop. China, for the most part, seems to avoid this problem. Its population might at first appear more homogenous, and from a purely phenotypic point of view I suppose it is, but it is a nation far larger and more populous than our own and, upon closer inspection, one with far more ethnic minorities.
Having said all that, would most of us want to live here? The heavenly cuisine and divine design culture of the Middle Kingdom aside, we would not. The filth, crowds, and lower standard of living would deter us, and we would bridle with such a sharp government bit in our mouth. Too, social and class inequities, far worse than those we suffer but a simple fact of life for long-suffering people accustomed to flooding rivers and monstrous monarchs, would outrage most Americans.
The third tine of our torturing trident is, of course, human rights. In this we have real work to do, particularly when it comes to creating equal opportunities for all and to emptying our prisons of folks who took a toke as time out from the tumult. Human rights are what give us bragging rights over our rivals in the world. As we endure a “regime change” of our very own, we must protect these rights against the assaults like The-Not-So-Patriotic-Act, digital invasions of privacy, cell phone surveillance, drone, and satellite monitoring, and more. If we don’t, we may suffer the fate of the Chinese people. What fate is that? Think disappearing Hong Kong booksellers, Tiananmen Square massacre, secret trials for political rivals, social programs that killed tens of millions of people, and regular purges and social ventures, the most notorious of which, the so-called “Cultural Revolution”, saw countless professors, artists, teachers, and scientists sent to hard labor in “re-education” camps. A disdain for the educational elite, my friends, can have a frightening cost.
Human nature swings like a pendulum between freedom and tyranny, love and loathing, frugality and profligacy, acceptance and denial, humility and hubris, narcissism and empathy. Lately, we have flirted so daringly with greed, hate, intolerance, and violence that we really risk losing what makes us special. If I have learned anything in my long journey from Manhattanite to monk it is that society and culture are merely magnified expressions of the individuals who populate them. Accordingly, the power to rearrange our recent dark disposition in favor of compassion, frugality, and humility lies within each of us.
Is it not time to remember that in the largest scheme of things we are beings of time not of space, that we appear and are rapidly gone, that far, far, more unites us all—including Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Chinese, and even ants, crows, rattlesnakes, and whales—than divides us? Isn’t it high time we re-examined our beliefs in search of principles and lessons that bring us together? Can we finally relinquish our anger, see life as an exquisite gift, and feel better and live longer for it? Is this not the perfect moment to reimagine America as a nation not of fear, intolerance, and isolationism but of patience, benevolence, and kindness?
We might have to dig deep to accomplish this shift but the result will be a stronger and more stable nation, and one that is the free and enlightened beacon our founding fathers had in mind.
Monk Yunrou (Soft Cloud)
Changsha City, Hunan Province, China