Saturday, February 23, 2008

What Would the Buddha Buy?

Before he was ordained a monk in Burma, the Venerable U Vamsa was a financial consultant in Vancouver, Canada, so he should have a unique view of wealth. "Money," he told a meeting of the Little Bang Sangha in Bangkok last week, "is just a tool. It can fund wars or it can build monasteries." In the West there is a stigma around money, he said. But it is not money that is bad, but "the love of money," according to the Bible, that is "the root of all evil."

Having recently given a seminar on "The Dhamma of Business" to a group of suits, he began his talk on "Wealth: A Buddhist Perspective" by focusing on the individual -- what does wealth mean to me. Despite the poverty of most monks, the Buddha did not shun money. The problem is not money but the "biggies": greed, anger and ignorance. "Prosperity is the result of good kamma...wealth is the ripened fruit of good action," he told the gathering of mostly expatriates. It was beginning to sound like a feel-good talk for the shock troops of global capitalism.

"Poverty is a real hindrance to spiritual progress," Vamsa said. Buddhist monks do not take a vow of poverty like Catholic monks, "but a vow of suffering" (by affirming the Buddha's First Noble Truth). They learn to take only what is needed. They lead simple, sufficient lives. After the economic meltdown in southeast Asia in the 1990s, the King of Thailand outlined what he called a "sufficiency economy," which sounded remarkably like sustainable development, a process that would protect the environment, local traditions and culture, and promote prosperity for all, at the same time (this ideology has now been strongly critiqued). The key question, of course, is: What is sufficient? Just food in your stomach and a roof over your head, or something more? A lawn to mow, designer clothes, and technological gadgets? One person's sufficiency might be another person's poverty.

Having heard Vamsa's critique of western political culture before (this was his third talk in as many months), I knew he did not intend to only show that Buddhist teaching, and the palliative of meditation, should soothe the stressed egos of worried capitalists. That it might do so was the edge of the razor that divides Buddhism as a New Age healing technique from the raw engaged Buddhism of people like Sulak Sivaraksa who want to radically transform economic structures that harm both people and the planet. Sulak believes
We have to ascertain whether or not the whole capitalist system itself — its agents, institutions, structures and culture-ideology — is inherently defective. From a Buddhist perspective, it definitely is.

For Vamsa, we must distinguish between material and spiritual wealth. Is material wealth a boon or a bane? We must ask ourselves: "Is it acquired lawfully, hoarded or shared, are we attached to it, and are we heedful of the dangers?" There are two kinds of desires, and they apply both to the supply and the demand side of the economic model. The first is tanha, or greed-based craving, and the second is chanda, wholesome reflection. "Most demand," he said, "is tanha-based," like our craving for high-priced toys. "Tanha-based supply is not concerned with the social products of consumption. What is the social cost to a bottle of whiskey?" He spoke of the decline of salmon in his native British Columbia, and cited the concept of "blowback," epitomized by failed CIA activities, which can also apply to the unintended consequences of technology.

Why help stressed-out corporate agents to meditate when the companies for which they work are destroying the world?, I asked during the Q&A session after a period of meditation following his talk. Vamsa agreed that the overall economic structures must be changed, but he said that there is little we can do at the micro level. "If enough people can be transformed at the micro level, then the macro will change," he said. I wish I shared his optimism.

The best guide to our economic decisions, according to Vamsa, are the Buddhists precepts which keep you on the right side of kamma. "Do only wholesome things, avoid unwholesome things, purify the mind."

I have been reading Conflict, Culture, Change: engaged Buddhism in a globalizing world (Wisdom Publications 2005), a collection of essays by Sulak Sivaraksa, and I find his thoughts on Buddhism, politics and economics both stimulating and challenging. Now 74, Sulak is a practically a force of nature in Thailand. Along with Thich Nhat Hanh, he is a founder of engaged Buddhism, the movement that applies the teachings of the Buddha to issues of social injustice. For his efforts he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His views on the unhealthy dominance of the military in Thai politics has led to exile several times, and he favors a return to the name Siam for his country.

Buddhism, Sulak writes, "is not really concerned with the private salvation of the individual." Unlike Christianity, Buddhism maintains a belief in the inborn goodness of people. According to Sulak, "even the most flawed people have Buddha-nature, and reconciliation begins with the acknowledgment of common humanity and shared suffering." The teachings of the Buddha deal with "the whole realm of sentient beings or the whole consciousness," and because of this, "the inescapable conclusion is that Buddhism requires an engagement in social, economic, and political affairs."

One rather simplistic difference between Theravada Buddhists and their Mahayana counterparts is that the former focus on meditation and individual enlightenment whereas the later have a stronger social sense, epitomized by the Bodhisattva who refrains from enlightenment until all are awakened. But for Sulak, a devout Theravadan, "meditation alone, which brings about critical reflection, humility, and simplicity, is insufficient to counter the power of foreign capital." Buddhism encourages people to face suffering, not avoid it. When they "contemplate it and attempt to find its causes," they realize that "it is not just they who are suffering. " Gradually they learn the causes of their suffering: "the unjust political, social, and cultural structures designed and implemented for the wealth of corporations."
Economic relations have come to dominate other relations, which forces people to define themselves by how much they own-- money, possessions, and people. But when we define ourselves as part of a web of relationships, the quality of our interactions and our ability to temper hatred, greed, and delusion emerge as the highest values of existence.

Some of Sulak's harshest criticisms are directed at America, the world's only remaining superpower. At the Gross National Happiness conference in Bangkok last fall, he presented a blistering critique of the consequences of globalization. "How many times has the United States committed atrocities in the name of pious principles?" he asks in his book. That the terrorists "chose to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon suggests that they opposed capitalism and the American military-industrial complex, two leading causes of violence throughout the world."
If American leaders come to understand terrorism as a cost and consequence of American imperial practices (admittedly a very big if), and if they shun violence and pursue a policy grounded in non-harming rather than structural violence, the United States can redeem itself. If not, it is likely to face more of the same tragedy in the future. Peace means not only the absence of war but also the presence of metta, karuna, and wisdom.

Ever since I encountered Liberation Theology in Latin America, and later studied the religious socialism that motivated revolutionaries in 19th century France, I have been looking for a spiritually-based politics that could present an realistic alternative to corporate state liberalism that currently dominates the West and the state socialism that failed in the Soviet Union. Buddhism, Sulak writes, teaches that "there is no such thing as the isolated self; our entire reality is made up of nonself elements." To describe this, he makes use of the concept of "interbeing" developed by Thich Nhat Hanh. "For communities of believers," Sulak says, "religion is not just a resource for achieving a balanced spiritual life; it is the essential ordering of all life." Sulak believes that in the sangha, or community, one of the three gems of Buddhism (along with Buddha and the dhamma), there is an example of a democracy that is rooted in moral values like kindness and compassion, and that predates Christianity's influence on economic values in the West. "The global economy props up the ego especial by aking a virtue of greed and consumerism." In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, pioneer sociologist Max Weber showed how Christian theology supported rather than limited or controlled the rising power of the market. Buddhism, if Sulak is correct, may help to reverse that trend.

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