Many people are looking forward to the new year with uneasiness. Judging by the record of the last couple of years the new millennium is off to a rough start. Terrorism, war, random violence, climate change, recession and potentially dangerous new technologies are all contributing to a mood of public anxiety, even fear.
One response has been a new emphasis on security, a determined effort to make the world safe which can easily backfire causing even more anxiety from the trivial ones of increased hassle at airports to the serious threats involved in loss of civil liberties at home, together with perpetual war crises abroad.
A Buddhist approach is completely different. Buddhism teaches that we are ultimately responsible for our own mental states, and seeking external solutions is doomed to failure. Buddhism is an eminently practical religion and it includes among it's teachings useful methods to overcome painful mental states. Anxiety, for instance, is countered by the tranquillity found in meditation on the breath. This is now recognized by medical science and has been adopted by western psychologists as a "relaxation technique."
But more fundamentally, Buddhism teaches that insecurity is not an unnatural state. On the contrary, conditioned existence (sangsara) is inherently insecure, by it's own intrinsic nature. Our wealth, health and very existence are all extremely provisional. Here today and gone tomorrow. This is the way the world is, and the way it always will be.
It has become a cliche to say that Sept. 11th 2001 changed everything. On a deeper level of understanding, we could say that it changed nothing except our minds. Before that date, many North Americans were living in a fool's paradise. War, famine, terrorism and other disasters existed only on the evening news, dim shadows of unfortunate faraway places. But the reality was that anyone could be struck down at anytime by accident, disease, crime or a myriad other causes. These tragedies happen all the time, on a daily basis, but they happen one by one and quietly.
The Buddhist approach is to recognize and accept insecurity as a way of life. Constant change is here to stay. Understanding the impermanent and provisional nature of all conditioned things is central to a Buddhist world-view. Critics of this belief cannot fault it's veracity, so they attack it's supposed consequences. They claim that it leads to passivity and pessimism. Neither charge is fair.
As for the charge that Buddhism leads to inertia and a dumb acceptance of injustice, this is not borne out by the facts. Buddhist cultures in the past have been as dynamic and creative as any, producing great scholarship and brilliant art. Today, there is a strong movement of "engaged Buddhists" at the forefront of environmental and social-justice issues. On the theoretical level Buddhists recognize that suffering is an inevitable reality, but that it can and should be mitigated by wise action. Buddhist thinking can be an effective basis for positive social change because it avoids the polarity of good vs. evil and talks instead in terms of skilful vs. unskilful action.
Nor is Buddhism pessimistic. In it's critique of this existence it is eminently realistic, recognizing the provisional and unsatisfactory nature of both pleasure and pain. The reality of suffering is the First Noble Truth. But the Dharma is ultimately very optimistic because of the Third Noble Truth, which states that there is an escape from suffering. This is not to be found externally in conditioned existence. It cannot be gained by any acquirement of material goods, or any social or political formula. It certainly cannot be forced with military or police action. It can only be found by looking within.