When the standard-bearer falls
So too does the standard.
The battle no longer has a purpose,
And so, it can never end.
[click here for audio]
We need to understand the heart of the standard-bearer. What is it that makes a man willing to enter a battlefield completely defenceless? Worse, actually, for while he does carry something, it cannot be used to take down another, and is the very thing that marks him out especially for destruction. If we can understand the source of the standard-bearer’s courage, we stand a chance of redeeming our declining civilisation.
It’s a dangerous game, playing with standards. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We change standards of acceptable social behaviour out of the desire to ‘progress’ and ‘liberate’. But what seemed like a good idea at the time often reveals itself to be otherwise in the light of hindsight. Unfortunately, hindsight does not have the power to change what it sees.
The 21st century will be known to the historians of the future as the century of (horrible, horrible) unintended consequences. If the horrors of the 20th century are to be captioned, “But we were just following orders!” then the label of our times will be, “But we had good intentions!” This era is wearing the suffering born of the 20th century’s arrogant casting-off of traditional taboos, restraints and standards. If we are to move ahead, we need to be willing to drop the nice-guy attitude and reply, “Good intentions aren’t good enough.”
People tend to become more conservative as they get older because the longer they live, the more they experience for themselves the consequences of the folly of youth – the folly that arises from thinking that we understand everything precisely because we haven’t been round for long enough to realise how much we don’t know.
This shallowness has been reified as wisdom itself since culture went into a drug-induced orgiastic meltdown during the Flower-Power era. We have become embarrassed of age as if nothing good can come of it. We worship the capacity of the capricious young and young-at-heart to live in the present moment and have entrenched ourselves in a fanatical kind of cultural amnesia.
When we reject the memories of the old and the memories of the dead, we leave ourselves with no data upon which we may develop standards of behaviour. Standards of behaviour are based upon observations as to what kind of behaviour leads to long-term benevolent results or, at the very least, harmless results for both self and other.
This longitudinal approach not only reveals to us patterns that are timeless, but it also helps us understand patterns that are universal. Thus, the corollary of the destruction of the past is the fracturing of the culture of the common Good. He who refuses to remember deep into the past and fails to imagine far into the future will not be capable of understanding how in the long run, we’re all in this together.
One problem we absolutely must confront is how the Good looks different when different scales of ‘long-term’ are applied. The rub is, in particular, in the reality of death. Our ideas as to what happens after death are a downright game-changer insofar as our conception of long-term Good.
If one believes that there is nothing after death, then essentially, it’s all on. Anything goes, nothing matters and all standards are for sale. After all, the fact of death means that from the perspective of any individual, there are no long-term consequences. For a fellow stuck in Groundhog Day, all actions are ultimately inconsequential: “If it feels good, man, just do it.”
This is what the world looks like to the secular materialist. It’s certainly great for sales.
While secular materialism, that is, the belief that there is no life after death, need not lead to amorality – (a secular materialist can still care about future generations, especially if he has children and grandchildren) – it is all too easy, if only out of laxity, especially when the going gets tough, to fall back into selfish thinking: “I might as well enjoy myself while I can even if its at the expense of the welfare of future generations because we’re all going to die anyway and somebody ought to have some fun – and it might as well be me as anyone else. Sure future generations will suffer, but why worry? I won’t be around to see it and they’ll be dead soon enough as well. So who cares?”
It’s a good question. Who cares? Why should anyone care about anything if its all going to be destroyed by death? This is the menacing darkness lying at the heart of Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead.” The question that Nietzsche spent his life trying to answer –for he was wise in many ways, he understood that without an answer Western civilisation is doomed — was how do we live meaningful lives in a universe without long-term consequences? As noble as Nietzsche’s efforts were, he was bound for failure. Fail, indeed, he did. He died an utterly dejected man.
He failed because the capacity to conceive of long-term consequences and the capacity to generate life-meaning are bound at the hip. There is no one without the other.
I’m the Spiritual Advisor to Australia’s first Buddhist High School, Pal Buddhist School. We don’t push our students to believe anything in relation to what happens after death. We do secular humanistic Buddhism during school hours, and the stuff that requires a leap of faith, we leave for non-compulsory time. But we do believe that our students need to learn to think for themselves so that they can decide with confidence for themselves what they believe happens after death, having respectfully listened to what the wisdom traditions of the world have to say on the matter. You gotta believe in something! Abstention from engaging with that topic is a seriously bad idea. At least be conscious of what you believe in, even if its nothing. Then your unconscious perspectives won’t be driving you from behind; and you’ll have a chance to notice if your beliefs are harmful; and you won’t live a life of meaninglessness, or perhaps worse a life of faithless and haphazard, on-again-off-again meaning.
The signs of cultural breakdown are all around us. We need not make predictions about where this equating of ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ with the dissolution of traditional mores leads. We are living the nightmare right here and now. We are hedged-in on all sides by the breakdown of the family, the war between the sexes, the mutation of the very boundaries of sex and gender, the war between the generations, the breakdown of civil society and … the list could go on ad infinitum. Welcome to the contents of Pandora’s box. How does it feel to slide down the greasy pole of present-moment expedience into the sinking floor of the lowest common denominator?
Back to the standard bearer. I submit that war is a particularly human endeavour not because we have really big brains that make it possible for us to organise our violence into battle arrays, something animals can’t do, but because human beings have this incredible capacity for living and dying for the sake of their conception of the greater Good. And by ‘greater Good,’ I do not mean the base and lowly desire to reproduce and find eternity in the propagation of genes, but the idea of some kind of long-term and spiritual happiness, health, peace, beauty and freedom that is capable of transcending death.
That Good, is represented by the emblem held high by the bravery of the standard-bearer: “This is the Good for the sake of which we will stand, and for which we will die, if things come to that. It is for this Good that our lives are made worth living.” The standard-bearer is the greatest of the men in battle, for he enters the field armed with naught but the power of his faith. He is the foremost among his compatriots because he carries them all with the strength of his courage. But should he go down, it is understood that it is the duty of each and every warrior to be willing to lay down his own arms in order to raise the standard once more. For so long as their is a single warrior still alive who is willing to make that sacrifice, then the soul of the nation lives on.
It’s moving image. One that can be abused. What if we are fooled into believing, standing and dying for things that aren’t worth our loyalty? When traditions fall apart because of the abuses of the past, we yearn for the rise of saviours — men and women (but usually men) with the knowledge and vision to instruct us properly about what happens after death and what standards of behaviour we should keep for the sake of eternal Goodness.
I understand and sympathise with everyone who fancies some version of the End Time plus Arising of Saviour story. But I think Early Buddhism provides a better narrative. Become the saviour that you’ve been waiting for. The Buddha taught that our good works matter and, in fact, those together with deliberately not engaging in bad works, are the only things that matter. Through these works, together with purification of the mind for the development of the faculties that penetrate the veil of death and the workings of karma, we can know what standards are worth protecting and what is truly Good. We can know these things for ourselves and come to confirm or deny what has been passed down by our ancestors.
In the meantime, so long as we still don’t know these things for ourselves, it is useful to believe the Buddha’s announcement that there is life after death and that we journey on according to our karma, because that belief forms a part of the path that leads to the ability to verify before we die the reality behind the belief.
So here are ten standards that I live, stand and – if it comes to it – will die for:
i. I abstain from killing living beings.
ii. I abstain from taking what is not given.
iii. I abstain from sexual misconduct.
iv. I abstain from false speech.
v. I abstain from divisive speech.
vi. I abstain from harsh speech.
vii. I abstain from pointless speech.
viii. I abstain from covetousness and materialistic thinking.
ix. I abstain from malicious thinking.
x. I abstain from denying karma and rebirth.
It is my faith, that so long as there are those who will bear up these standards, the soul of civilisation is not lost, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Strive on, friends! For the battle has an end in the attainment of Nibbana.
PS: The ten things are Dasakusaladhamma the Ten Wholesome Principles taught by the Buddha in the Sāleyyaka Sutta in response to the question of why is it that some people get reborn in heaven after they die and why some people get reborn in hell. I actually believe literally in heaven and hell, so I’m always seriously motivated to do good with my life and not evil and not waste my rapidly expiring life as a human being.
PPS: The Ten Wholesome Principles are also the basis for the code of behaviour at Pal Buddhist School, although we have expanded the ten to eleven by adding abstention from alcohol and intoxicants and then doubled the lot into twenty-two in order to include the positive side of each abstention.