The idea of universal brotherhood, not widely accepted even a hundred years ago, today finds much support. From the terrible destructive power of modern weapons to the immediacy of televised images, a wide range of factors has highlighted global interdependence. The events of this century have shown time and again the tragic consequences of any nation, race, or group holding itself above or apart from another portion of mankind. When we turn to the daily news, however, the widespread effects of self-centeredness and separative feelings are obvious. What, then, is the basis of brotherhood?
A thought-provoking exploration of this subject appears in a wellknown children's book, A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle. In it the author dramatizes the interconnection of all entities in the universe by describing the adventures of a group of human and cosmic beings who must travel within a boy's body to communicate with the beings inhabiting one of his cells, to whom the boy is as a galaxy. To overcome the story's evil forces of destruction, those involved learn that the life and consciousness infilling all beings are expressions of one divine source, and that each entity affects every other and must contribute its share to the great cosmic song of selfless love and joy. The welfare of the whole depends on each performing its particular role in a positive, giving way. Nothing is insignificant or outside of life, consciousness, and divinity.
This is the very basis of brotherhood: the one divine source of all within the cosmos, the underlying unity which necessitates the absolute interdependence of each individual with every other — whether galaxy, star, person, cell, or atomic particle. All are fundamentally a oneness, connected intimately on every level of their being in an endless webwork of life and consciousness. As human beings, we are each a galaxy to the atoms forming our body and at the same time infinitesimals to the Milky Way, existing in a cosmos whose every portion is alive and of equally vital importance. Considered as part of the earth, each person is a cell in the terrestrial organ we call humanity, and by his actions and thoughts each contributes in a constructive or destructive way to the functioning of this whole. Brotherhood, then, is actually a reflection in human life of the structure of the cosmos itself, an expression of the way in which the universe is organized and functions.
The reason the essential oneness of mankind does not appear more clearly in human affairs is that we are not fully evolved as human beings. We have self-awareness and intellect enough to have built up a strong personal ego, but have not yet developed the spiritual insight that would allow us to transcend this still limited, self-involved consciousness. We exercise free will to a considerable extent, but have not awakened to our spiritual aspects enough so that we consistently choose wisely. Our immaturity shows in selfishness, egotism, animality, ignorance, fear, and violence — each of us can recognize these qualities in ourselves and their effect on our lives and our relations with others. Many people, in fact, feel that this as-yet-uncompleted stage of evolution is the natural state of mankind. Yet we must also recognize our truly human qualities of selflessness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and love. Such characteristics are attuned to the fundamental being of nature and, as we learn to express this reality in ourselves, human life will come to reflect the underlying harmony and oneness of our cosmic source.
The religious traditions of mankind provide a wide variety of tools to help us conform to the underlying realities of nature. One of the most practical and clearly expressed is the noble eightfold path of Buddhism. It deals explicitly with overcoming both ignorance and the self-limiting habits we have built up in ourselves. Buddha gave this path as: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
Right views or understanding comes first because recognition of essential oneness as the ultimate reality cuts directly at the root of those attitudes which lead to selfishness, fear, and conflict. The whole trend of our life and civilization springs from axiomatic views that we hardly realize we hold, views that define who we are, what our relationship is to the rest of the world, and our individual and collective destiny. We will not break from our present often negative way of life until the ignorance that directs it is replaced with beliefs that more accurately reflect our true place in the cosmos.
Right thoughts and aspirations follow from understanding the reality of human existence. It requires deliberate effort to conform our thoughts to what we intuitively know is true because our mind tends to revert automatically to existing mental and emotional habits, usually springing from the more limited, less perceptive aspects of ourselves. Our mind is the creator of egoism and selfishness when dominated by the less-evolved side of our nature; but if we learn to control it, the mind can also serve as a brilliant instrument of our inner being. Right speech and right conduct follow as the manifestation of our views and thoughts, as does right livelihood — choosing work which harmonizes with our spiritual outlook. All these indicate the importance of aligning our inner and outer activities as much as possible with our beliefs and ideals so that the various aspects of our life are united. Right effort, too, is vital, for we cannot move forward unless we develop our will to continue our efforts in the face of the many setbacks we are bound to meet along the way.
These first six elements together reflect the various practical applications of an accurate perception of reality. They have a tremendous influence on the world around us — we affect through our psychological and physical activity countless people we will never know. Because every one of us is so closely linked to all others, trying to express our growing inner perception in day-to-day living is perhaps the greatest contribution we can make toward ameliorating humanity's condition.
Right mindfulness and right concentration or meditation, the last two elements, concern practicing self-discipline and control of our thoughts and feelings in a more intensive way. Right mindfulness is being aware of things as they are, at all times and to as great a degree as possible. Concentrating on whatever presents itself to us — rather than slipping into the past or future, or superimposing our preconceptions and feelings — is no easy task. One reason brotherhood is not more apparent is because our prejudices, fears, and dislikes are the very sort of mental patterns we habitually impose on our experience. We then do not perceive the reality of the situation directly, but instead focus on the distortions caused by our preconceptions and egoism, and are apt to react to these self-induced perceptions from the same limited side of ourselves that created them.
The final element, right concentration, concerns understanding and disciplining our mind so that we can go beyond normal, limited mental activities to a deeper, universal awareness. Buddhists generally accomplish this with various meditation practices, as do seekers of most other religious traditions. Christians refer to such practices as prayer and recollection, not meaning petitionary prayer but a quieting of the mind and senses and a resting of the mind on God. Such practices can be beneficial, particularly when undertaken with the guidance of an experienced advisor. Guidance is important because these practices often induce confusing psychic experiences which can easily deflect or unbalance the inexperienced or unprepared person.
The most important factor in our effort to approach reality, whatever means we choose to get there, is the development of compassion and an impersonal love for all without distinction. These destroy most quickly the personal limitations and egoism that are at the root of our lack of correct perception, while also affecting most dramatically our character and relationships. As St. Paul said, without impersonal love (agape) — even with knowledge, powers, abilities, or the performance of beneficial actions — we are as nothing. In practicing compassion, all aspects of personal development come naturally; without compassion, the results of our efforts are empty because they are not an expression of our essential self, which is identical with the divine reality behind all being.
Following the compassionate, self-disciplined path that religious teachers such as Buddha have outlined is the surest means to bring about a practical expression of brotherhood among mankind. Human problems are built primarily on ignorance compounded by imperfection. If we could perceive the actual unity of humanity and of the universe, and understand that we are fundamentally one and only superficially separate, our attitudes toward ourselves and others would in time conform to this view. If we could go beyond intellectual and emotional perception to experience the oneness of all being, human life would truly be transformed. A permanent experience of mystic union lies in the far-distant future for most of us. But any of us can strive to overcome the ignorance of mind and heart that now blinds us, and in so doing bring human life ever more fully in harmony with the reality of universal existence.
In these very critical times for mankind and all on earth, we cannot afford to perpetuate negative habits of thought. The realization that other people everywhere are like ourselves grows stronger with increasing global contact and communication. Such direct knowledge gives us the opportunity to abandon old caricatures formed by the distorting lens of fear, historic animosities, and self-interest. Not to control our own inner negativity makes ever more real the possibility of massive destruction of mankind, whether through nuclear war, the continued series of local atrocities committed worldwide, or one of the other myriad manifestations of human selfishness and ignorance. The antidote lies with each of us — to expand our sympathies to include all people, and indeed all life, so that we contribute our portion to the cosmic pattern of compassion and love.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)