I happened to pick up a copy of a book by the Dalai Lama yesterday, at our local Target store, of all places, where Ellie and I had gone to find some stocking stuffers and cute clothes for our grandchildren in England. The book is called "How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life," and on the very first page His Holiness has this to say on the topic in question:
Material advancement alone sometimes solves one problem but creates another. For example, certain people may have acquired wealth, a good education, and high social standing, yet happiness eludes them. They take sleeping pills and drink too much alcohol. Something is missing, something still not satisfied, so these people take refuge in drugs or in a bottle. On the other hand, some people who have less money to worry about enjoy more peace. They sleep well at night. Despite being poor in a material sense, they are content and happy. This shows the impact of a good mental attitude. Material development alone will not fully resolve the problem of humanity's suffering.And even the Buddha, as I recall, discovered after years of exposing himself to poverty and hunger as a mendicant and ascetic that deprivation brought no more release from suffering than did the life of luxury he had led before.
To return to Chani's question, then, I have to say that the answer is No. To me, with all my privileges, the suffering of a great part of humanity is unimaginable. There's no way I can "understand" it. Even though it exists, certainly, in my own back yard, it's oceans away, so vast as to be incomprehensible. Should I, like the Buddha, turn my back on the life that has been granted me, for better or for worse? There's a nagging part of me--the conscience?--that keeps telling me I should, even while I recognize that it's neither reasonable nor realistic, nor that such a gesture would even do very much to help.
On the other hand, as the Dalai Lama suggests, none of us escape the inevitability of suffering. Are the wealthy in their mansions with their drugs and bottles suffering any less than those out on the street, with theirs? Certainly, they are suffering in circumstances of greater material comfort--but how much does that help, when suffering happens in the heart and soul?
And then that voice kicks in again to tell me that I'm rationalizing...
I come back to the need to remain conscious, to accept responsibility for everything that privilege has brought to me, and to practice proportionate generosity. I'd be interested in your views.