Chapter 09 Are We All One? Collectivism vs. Individuality

“We are all one” is a phrase often spoken in spiritual circles to describe the interconnectedness of all life on the planet – human, plant, animal, insect and beyond. Many anarchists who value their individuality and free choice tend to be apprehensive about this seemingly collectivist worldview. However, it is possible for one to believe in a path that is in harmony with nature and its creatures, while simultaneously believing in the right to be a free individual and freedom of association.

Throughout most of the world, people are taught to look at reality in a very polarized way. When certain issues are presented to us through mainstream circles, they are usually oversimplified to the point of being a black or white concept– all people are either good or bad, with no in between. In reality, life is much more complicated than that. There are usually many different ways of looking at a situation and many different sides to any story.

This is especially true in the study of philosophy, because terms are constantly being redefined and ideas constantly reexamined with every new generation of philosophers to accommodate the new insight and information that has become available over time.

One concept that is vastly misunderstood and oversimplified by the general population is that of individualism and collectivism. While there are many different ideas about what these words mean, the true value of any concept is determined by the consequences that arise in society as a result of its implementation.

At face value, collectivism has been a philosophy with cheery rhetoric, but horrible outcomes, because it has traditionally been implemented coercively through politics. Collectivist philosophers have spoken of noble goals like making sacrifices for the group and working together and cooperating. They have said these are things that people should do. It very well may be true that people should behave in these ways, but the problem is that politicians come along and use this philosophy as a way of telling people what they must do.

The mainstream stereotype of an individualist is someone who is a selfish person with no desire to participate in the community at all. The contrasting view of a collectivist is someone who cares about the tribe as a whole, so much so that they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of the tribe. Individualism has nothing to do with selfishness. It is simply a way of looking at people without separating them into various groups by race, nationality, gender, religion or social status.

When people are seen as groups instead of individuals, large numbers of people are often held responsible for things that individuals among them have done. There is also a great danger in the idea that an individual needs permission from the group to exercise his or her own free will, which is exactly the type of worldview on which collectivist concepts like “democracy” and “consensus” were built.

We have often found that well-meaning spiritually inclined individuals buy into “New Age” messages that operate under the guise of helping out the whole human species. This could be a small group of wealthy individuals promoting a reduction in the population, or forced sterilization for the supposed good of the whole. An Anarchist perusing some modern spiritual material might be turned off by the prevalence of statist and collectivist language. Compassionate individuals may find themselves wrapped up in philosophies that claim to be about a greater good but end up harming the individual and thus the community as a whole. Anarchists may be so independent they completely ignore the importance of community and turn away those who want liberation for all.

It’s time we recognize each individual as a sacred being. To respect the whole, we must first respect the individual. For an individual to be truly free, he or she must not have physical obligations to anyone else. Rather an individual must be able to freely choose who to interact with in a meaningful and peaceful way. In this manner he or she can then become truly fulfilled and free. At the very least, mutual respect for other free individuals’ life choices will go a long way.

One of the most powerful examples of interdependence comes from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra of the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. The Huayan, or Flower Garland School of Mahayana, was founded on the ideas expressed in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, also known as the Flower Garland Sutra or Flower Ornament Scripture. This sutra centers on the ideas of interdependence and an interpenetrating reality. It describes worlds upon worlds, overlapping and coexisting within each other.

This concept is best expressed in the story of the jeweled net of Indra. Indra was a God who was said to possess a net that extended infinitely in all directions. The net contained individual shimmering diamonds that spread out in all directions. Each individual diamond was perfect on its own, but the individual pieces also reflected the beauty and light of the surrounding diamonds.

Renowned translator of Eastern texts, Thomas Cleary, describes the beauty of the tale of Indra’s net in his book Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism. Cleary writes:

“The seventh gate is called the realm of Indra’s net. The net of Indra is a net of jewels: not only does each jewel reflect all the other jewels but the reflections of all the jewels in each jewel also contain the reflections of all the other jewels, ad infinitum. This “infinity of infinities” represents the interidentification and interpenetration of all things as illustrated in the preceding gates.

To illustrate the net of lndra principle with a simplistic example from everyday life, we might consider the cost of a commodity as representing a nexus of various conditions. For the sake of simplicity, let us say the cost of something reflects (1) the cost of raw materials, (2) the cost of energy required for its manufacture, (3) the cost of labor involved in its production, and (4) the cost of transportation for distribution.

Turning our attention to raw materials, the first element, we can see that the cost of raw materials also involves the cost of energy required for their extraction, the cost of labor involved in their extraction, and the cost of transportation of the raw materials to the processing site. The cost of energy involves the cost of raw materials from which energy is produced as well as raw materials for the devices involved, the cost of labor involved in producing energy, and the cost of distribution of energy. The cost of labor reflects the cost of goods, energy, and transportation necessary for the work force. The cost of transportation involves the cost of materials, energy, and labor necessary to the manufacture and operation of transportation systems. Thus each element in this analysis reflects and contains every other element. 

While this example is rudimentary, using an oversimplified scheme of analysis and stopping at only one level of subanalysis, it illustrates how the net of Indra concept may be applied to the development of a balanced view of a complex of phenomena. The analytic framework may be usefully applied in economics, socioeconomics, group and individual psychology, and ecology. While it may be said that the net of Indra does not necessarily reveal anything startlingly new- it is, after all, merely an articulation of a principle inherent in an interdependent nexus of phenomena- still it is a valuable instrument for the achievement of balance and depth in understanding and, moreover, for the avoidance of one-sided views,”  (pages 37, 38). 

We see value in understanding this parable and its call for unity without ignoring diversity. The sutra paints an image of a world in which one is simultaneously dependent on others and depended on by others. The whole is considered in relation to each individual and each individual is seen in relation to other individuals. Again, Cleary offers clarity…

“The ethic of the Hua-yen teaching is based on this fundamental theme of universal interdependence; while the so-called bodhisattva, the person devoted to enlightenment, constantly nourishes aspiration and will going beyond the world, nevertheless the striving for completion and perfection, the development of ever greater awareness, knowledge, freedom, and capability, is continually reinvested, as it were, in the world, dedicated to the liberation and enlightenment of all beings.“ (page 2)

While Huayan Buddhism hints at the power of interdependence and the importance of the individual, certain native communities believe that individuality in the western world has played a role in the breaking down of the social fabric. While we cannot deny that a lack of awareness and concern for the fellow humans in the global community allows certain individuals to make destructive choices, we believe overall that the individual and the community are valuable. You should not necessarily give yourself up to the will of the collective, but remain willing to examine your individual behavior and recognize whether you are doing more harm than good.

Since we share this planet with billions of humans, animals, plants, stones, and countless other life forms it is advisable to find ways to work together. We are connected through DNA, through our energetic bodies and through our current position in time and space. By learning to value and love ourselves we can move to a place of valuing and loving those with whom we share our local and global communities.

Chapter 10 -Balancing the Feminine and the Masculine