Poor countries often have poor waste management, water and air treatment, and power generation facilities. Even in large cities, people in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, etc. often burn their trash right beside their homes, bury toilet waste in pits beside their homes that may rarely or never get cleaned, don’t have very clean drinking water, and go without electricity every few days or weeks. A really good, humanitarian, and probably profitable idea for a large corporation, wealthy person, or the UN might be to build municipal utility facilities (water treatment; recycling; industrial quality incineration; urban air filtration; and solar, wind, or hydro power generation) into a fleet of ships that get deployed to the ocean and river shores of these countries — providing good quality utility services to a large portion of the planet at a cheap bulk rate.
Especially as societies become more free/liberal and people have more of a choice, I find it curious that so many people around the world still choose to embrace the religions of conquerors. Christians and Muslims in particular have colonized, conquered, enslaved, and/or forcibly or coercively converted large parts of the Earth and many indigenous peoples over the last few thousand years. But still today Africans, Central and South Americans, South Asians, and Southeast Asians (and their descendents and diasporas around the world) in particular frequently convert to, and/or seem very passionate about, those religions. And as far as I can tell, they’re not always just paying lipservice to those religions (e.g., superficially following those religions in order to get some benefit or reward from the conquerors). So why do those people reject their native religions, or why don’t they follow more peaceful world religions?
To my clear, my complaint is about certain religions, not about God(s). A person can interact with God(s) either in a spiritual way without traditions or from within the conceptual frameworks of many large, old religions; it doesn’t have to happen within the framework of Christianity or Islam. Themes of violence, conquest, domination, superiority, etc. run deep/old especially in Christian and Islamic cultures. I think people should be wary and skeptical of those kinds of themes, and I want to point out that there are other major world traditions (e.g., Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Bahai, Sikhism, Taoism, etc.) as well as local/indigenous traditions that either lack those themes or have them to a much lesser extent.
Usually, I find that being well-educated and/or well-traveled makes people more open/large-minded, tolerant, patient, non-racist, non-nationalistic, peaceful, etc., and that being poorly educated and/or traveled makes people the opposite of those things. People who, mentally or physically, never go far from home usually seem to be the ones who are passionately attached to one (and against all others) religion, ethnic or national identity, sports team, local dialect of a language, and so on. A common metaphor for such people in south and southeast Asian countries is “frogs in a well.”
Here are several infrastructual things that South Asian countries often seem to do better than the US:
- the existence of low-cost or free state-run hospitals, in addition to more expensive private hospitals
- low prices on basic-needs products (staple foods, utilities, etc.), because of controls by the government
- state-run trains that are cheap and go to every major city
- the use of international standards (metric, ISO, international voltages and plugs support, etc.)
- greater variety of products imported from foreign countries
- using the most cost-efficient technology that will do the job by default, not requiring people to pay for luxuries
- not adding large corporate or government bureaucracy, litigation, and surveillance to every little thing
- a preference for traditional cultures that do things in natural, local, eco-friendly ways (e.g., eating fresh food, using biofuels, minimizing electricity use, using natural building materials, planting lots of trees or living in a forest, etc.)
- a preference for smaller, more energy efficient and easy-to-fix vehicles (bikes, scooters, motorcycles, tuk tuks, etc.)
- commonsense safety or sanitation precautions (e.g., having switches on power outlets, not building electrical wires into walls, using natural gas in canisters and stoves that are stored outside, running rain gutters under sidewalks and making sidewalks out of stone or metal panels that can be lifted, etc.)
I often have heard Mahayana (and Mahayana-derived) Buddhists criticize Theravada for not having a Bodhisattva Vow — where one vows to be reborn again and again to teach sentient beings, until all sentient beings either have attained enlightenment or attain it together — accusing Theravadists of being selfish for trying to attain nirvana/nibbana quickly. Here are a few defenses of the Theravada view:
Westerners are often asked to take the Bodhisattva Vow shortly after they have attended a Mahayana meditation group for the first time, when they barely know anything about Buddhism, are nowhere close to enlightenment themselves (so probably could not control their rebirths), and are hardly in a position to make a long-term promise.
Like the Western elementary school lesson/game ‘telephone’ — where 20-30 kids sit in a circle, whisper the same message in each other’s ears going around the circle, and see how distorted the message becomes after it has gone around the circle — humans often misunderstand what they hear, and then they pass on that misinformation. Over time, the original message is lost. Buddhism has split many times, and later forms of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Tientai, etc. have become very different from early Buddhism, even in just a few thousand years. How different might human Buddhism become in 1 million years, if it survives that long? Would it bear any resemblance to what the Buddha taught?
Pop culture religion also has a habit of incorporating legends and becoming more outlandish/fantastical over time. For example, some people have apparently arbitrarily made up large numbers for the sizes, distances from Earth, or lifespans of beings in certain heavens and hells. I have also heard South Asian people claim that there have always been Indo-Aryan peoples in South Asia, though the archaeological record says that they have been there for only about 5,000 years. Some people claim that Islam has always been in India, though Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived from 570-632 CE.
There also is the issue of how much karma Mahayanists must keep in their mindstreams, in order to remain in samsara. Some of them, especially Zen Buddhists, lead quite worldly, indulgent lives. It is unclear whether they are clear-headed enough to preserve and practice good-quality Buddhism.
If there are many, possibly infinite, fully enlightened Buddhas from the distant past living forever in Pure Lands, which they created for themselves and which samsaric beings can visit, why do ignorant humans, or even devas (long-lived, heavenly beings), need to take a bodhisattva vow? Won’t everyone encounter one of those Pure Lands, or beings who have visited those Pure Lands, eventually? If there is an infinite series of past Buddhas, why don’t they continuously come to Earth themselves, or create real-time projections of themselves on Earth with which people here could easily interact? If Buddhas gain Creator God-like power over Buddha Nature when they become enlightened, why are their powers to interact with humans apparently limited after their human body dies?
(For how long) Would a Mahayanist sit around waiting for solids, liquids, gases, etc. in the samsaric universe to possibly evolve into a sentient being that is complex enough to interact with and instruct on the path to nirvana? It has been about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, and there is a great deal of matter in this universe that is nowhere close to evolving into complex life, and may never be. Physicists’ predictions about the eventual fate of the universe (trillions of years from now) describe a great deal of matter either never evolving into sentient life or being destroyed in a Big Crunch. Upon what nearly-permanent bodymind medium do Mahayanists plan on surviving until the end of the universe, or across universes if there are multiple Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang… cycles?
It is very rare and transient for sentient life to evolve in this universe, and it might happen on worlds separated by vast distances. How do Mahayanists plan on traveling to such worlds to teach the people there?
As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said in one of his recorded dhamma talks: “This body requires that we have to take food, clothing, shelter, medicine…. And it’s not only a burden for us in the searching, but it’s a burden for other people in their providing… other beings of all kinds: animals. This is why, when we stop samsara-ing, it’s a gift — not only to ourselves, but to the people around us. It’s not selfish to stop doing this. If you thought of samsara as a place where people are suffering, then it might seem heartless to want to get out. But, if you see it as a process — a process that’s causing yourself suffering, a process that’s causing other people suffering — the more people who stop doing the process, the better everybody’s going to be… the happier everyone’s going to be” (“Constellations of Stress,” 2004-09-07).