What does Buddhism have to say about our society and how can it become a force for social change?
The Buddha on Wall Street
What’s Wrong with Capitalism and What We Can Do about It
Windhorse Publications,, Cambridge, 2015, ISBN: 9781909314443
A perennial charge against Buddhism is that it teaches a way to transcend the world, rather than engaging with it or trying to change it. Nietzsche associated Buddhism with resignation; and Zizek suggests that western Buddhism’s focus on acceptance and managing stress is a convenient emollient for the privileged who wish to navigate the world rather than confronting its injustice and their own complicity.
Several Buddhist responses are possible, but they are strongest when Buddhists show through their deeds, not just their words, that, even if samsara is endless, they care about the state of the world and are trying to change it. The Buddha on Wall Street extends a line of thought developed by Ken Jones, David Loy and others which holds that the Buddhist analysis of suffering in an individual can also apply to society. Just as the Buddhist path of personal liberation shows how to overcome personal craving, hatred and delusion, so a Buddhist path of social liberation involves overcoming the same forces as they are instantiated in our economic systems.
The Buddha on Wall Street brings Buddhist teachings into relationship with the most pressing issues in our society: community, work, the environment, waste, inequality and so on. Vaddhaka has a grasp of economics that is rare among the Buddhist voices speaking out on social issues. He is a good friend of mine and we have often discussed these issues together, and I know that he writes from a deep commitment to the ideal of creating a better world.
This is a clear, comprehensive and accessible overview of a socially engaged Buddhist approach that connects general reflections with present-day realities. I recommend it as a manual of how Buddhism might respond to a world that is speeding up with technology, where ethically blind, profit-focused corporations are increasingly powerful, wasteful and exploitative; and that is seemingly hurtling towards ecological catastrophe.
However, there are three areas where my own thoughts diverge somewhat from Vaddhaka’s. The first is what we can learn about society from the Buddhist scriptures. A number of discourses are often cited in discussions of the Buddha’s view of society, particularly the Aganna Sutta, the Sigolavada Sutta, which both offer a picture of a better way to live in society. These appear in The Buddha on Wall Street, as they appear in my book on the Buddha. However, something is wrong if from 17,000 suttas we can find only a handful that connect with our concerns about social change. It would be reasonable to conclude that this is really a peripheral issue for the Buddha, who was primarily concerned with world renunciation.
I don’t think that’s true: a huge amount of material in the discourses shows the Buddha engaging deeply with his society. However, his social engagement took forms that were relevant to his society, which was pre-modern and subject to forces even more foreign to us than classical Greece. Many discourses portray the Buddha’s wary but persistent engagement with Pasenadi, King of Kosala. Others show him challenging Brahmins about their pretentions to social status and the caste system. Above all, his society was obsessed with the influence of the spirit world of yakshas and devas, and its population expected holy men to help propitiate them. One might conclude that, for all his perennial wisdom, the Buddha’s cultural and temporal distance from us makes him useless as a source for understanding the culture of late capitalism. Alternatively, we could consider how the Buddha responded to his society, with all its differences from our own, taking that as a model.
The Buddha of the Discourses engages with the animistic worldview of the people he encounters, and places it in the much wider perspective of his own vision of existence. By all means make offerings to the devas, he is saying, but understand that they don’t have the answers to life’s problems, even if they really exist and are powerful. That answer is to be found in the human mind. As a model, this suggests that the main offering Buddhists can make to mainstream society is a coherent set of values and the example of people who fully embody them. We need to address people’s immediate and direct concerns, but view them in the perspective of the Dharma
This leads me to a second point of divergence, which concerns what I now call ‘the mainstream mindfulness movement’ (I think we should probably stop calling it ‘the secular mindfulness movement’ as that limits its scope). Vaddhaka’s account of this movement largely focuses on mindfulness in business settings and cites critical concerns that have become very familiar: it is ethically neutral and cannot defend itself against corporate appropriation. I share some of these concerns, but I think they miss the scope and significance of what is happening. As well as being used in workplaces and for business leaders, mindfulness and meditation are entering education, healthcare, criminal justice, psychotherapy, faith communities, social work and many other areas. The focus on the corporate sector in these discussions of mainstream mindfulness its actual character. At its heart is a grassroots movement of committed practitioners, assisted by institutional champions and a wave of apps and books, that is spreading exponentially because of its efficacy and the desire of the people who have benefitted to share what their they have learned. Yes, there are compromises, but I think we should look at mainstream mindfulness as say, ‘This is what it looks like when Buddhism affects society on a mass scale. Now, how can we influence it?’
Mainstream mindfulness doesn’t challenge society’s values head-on; rather it engages with the suffering they cause because this is what motivates people most strongly. In that way it introduces people to an alternative way of living and asks them to reflect and take command of their lives. This approach echoes that of the Buddha, I suggest; and in the long term, its implications are utterly revolutionary.
My third point of divergence concerns how we regard the social mission of Triratna, the Buddhist movement with which both Vaddhaka and I have been involved for many years. Vaddhaka describes Triratna’s efforts to create what we have termed a New Society of Buddhist-based living and working situations, such as communities and Team based Right Livelihood businesses, presenting them as an alternative to mainstream society. These settings offer supportive conditions for people wishing to practice Buddhism, but I think we need to reconsider whether they really offer a viable model for wider social change. Not only have they not had that effect after four decades, engagement in them has declined considerably, even among very committed members of Triratna.
Vaddhaka ascribes the relative decline in engagement with these to the effects of consumerism and individualism. No doubt that plays a role, but a bigger factor, in my view, is that many people (myself included) have wanted living and working situations that meet their needs, rather than fitting with what is possible in collective situations. We have wanted to follow our vocations, and in many cases these have involved engaging with people who are suffering. Some of us have become mindfulness teachers, others are yoga teachers, psychotherapists, mediators, teachers, medical workers and so on. Many people who are doing this sort of work feel they are finding effective ways to express their Buddhist practice.
In effect, we are following a different model of Buddhist-inspired social change. Seeking to create a more ideal world set apart from mainstream society in fact establishes an enclave within it. Many people may wish to inhabit such a space for some years, but perhaps not the whole of their lives. We needs such enclaves, but we also need to embrace what is happening. We need a vision of Buddhist-inspired social change that encompasses what these people are doing; it needs to include the mainstream mindfulness movement; and we need to find allies among activists and workers in the caring professions and elsewhere with whom our values overlap.
I think we need to look afresh at what Buddhists are actually doing to change society and inform it with the powerful analysis of what is wrong with it that Vaddhaka offers. Buddhist influences are already performing a secret ministry in western societies. As a Buddhist Marx might have said, a spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of the Dharma.