Monday, August 1, 2011

Extreme Earnings and Buddha Dharma - preliminary musings

by Elihu Genmyo Smith

The following are some preliminary musings and questions on economic and power disparities from a Buddhist practice perspective:

We seem to live in a world of differences - of cold and hot, wet and dry, strong and weak, smart and dull, rich and poor, and the many other manifestations of the ongoing impermanence of conditions arising and passing that is this life. But if we only see the differences then we are sure to suffer in the midst of changes, liking some and disliking others, clinging and attaching. Do we see the differences in the midst of the non-differences, the "unity" of the differences? Or do we miss this and only act out of our likes and dislikes for particular differences? Skillful and appropriate actions grow out of the wisdom that sees the differences in unity, the unity of differences - and is able to manifest compassion. This is true each moment, in our personal life and in larger social, political and economic realms.

What does Buddhism in general, or precepts such as the non-elevating/non-degrading 7th Bodhisattva precept or "right livelihood" in particular, have to say regarding the extreme gap between the earnings of top corporate executive and the majority of "their" workers, or about the various forms of power and economic disparities between various elites and the general population in a society?

The economic gap is a fact today all over the world, though the extent varies. We find this to be true in companies in China and in corporations in the US, in India and in Russia, in Europe and in Africa. This is a characteristic of present day world economy and some corporate cultures, sometimes attributed to capitalism though we find it in societies whose economic system are certainly not classical capitalism, and which are far from democratic.

Lest we think that it is a matter of capitalism, it is important to recall that communism/socialism in the 20th century produced great power and rewards disparity in many states, including the Soviet Union and China, with the added terrible feature of arbitrary authoritarian rule and large scale state murders and persecution. Some more egregious examples include :

1. The famine, purges and ethnic cleansing by Stalin's government, which killed between 5 - 10 million people in the Soviet Union according to scholarly estimates (in addition to the 10 - 20 million killed in WWII in the Soviet area) and caused major suffering, uprooting of peoples and destructions of homelands;

2. Mao Zedong's policies in China, including the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which are believed to have killed 40 to 70 million people and caused suffering for millions more;

3. Cambodia under Pol Pot, where the "killing fields" destroyed about 20% of the population.

Can we generalize regarding the relationship of Buddhism and economic and political disparities?

There are a number of American Buddhist organizations like the Zen Peacemaker Order whose focus (primary focus?) is engaged Buddhism. A question to clarify is, what are other Buddhist perspective on the economic, political or social disparities, and even more significantly, whether a Buddhist position/perspective exists, and is it necessary to formulate one?

From the time of Shakyamuni Buddha until the present, Buddha Dharma has been practiced in societies where there have been sharp power, wealth and rewards differentials and disparity. Certainly in the time of the Buddha it was the royalty and rich who were the primary patrons for supplying the various monastic properties. And yet, the poor were treated as an important part of Sangha practice, being among those to whom the mendicants went for alms and to whom Dharma teaching was given. To overly generalize regarding economics and social structure,  these Asian societies were certainly quite hierarchical; the plight of the poor throughout the centuries in many of these lands was often comparatively much worse than at the present time in the US and Western Europe.

The Buddha encouraged (according to the most ancient extant texts) those who wanted to practice with him to "leave home." This meant giving up privilege, power and wealth - so certainly these were seen as a hinderance. Nevertheless, in the Buddha Dharma there is not an overall criticism of the nature of society or power and economic disparities. At the same time there was NOT the incorporation of caste hierarchy within the Sangha. (The issue of lack of gender equality, and the greater freedom of women in the Buddhist Sangha as compared to the contemporary societies, is a topic to explore elsewhere, though it certainly is related to economic circumstances and power options).

Buddhism continued to flourish on the Indian subcontinent through periods of various Indian Empires within which power and economic disparities were the norm. With the Muslim conquest of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India from the 10th Century onward, Buddhism as a practicing community was wiped out in those areas.

Buddhism flourished, despite periods of suppression, through Tang, Song, Ming and Qing China, during which time the power and economic disparities and inequalities were at least as great as those in modern day Western  capitalism. Japanese Buddhism developed and matured in a society which maintained power and social hierarchies, with disparities of wealth and power as the norm, even as it went through various governmental forms, from the Nara period, the Kamakura period, up to the long Tokogawa period and the Meiji to the present. We can speak of Buddhism in Tibet as being entangled with the power and economic elites. This was also the case in the various parts of South East Asia, and even in the Indonesian archipelago, until Islamic domination of Indonesia in the 12th and 13th century.

Though the issues of economic and political disparity were often on the periphery of the concerns of much of Buddhism, at the same time, there are many examples of Buddhist teachers supporting the peoples against the oppressive activities and taxation of the government and of economic and power elites.

To cite just a few (and leave out many/most - so please do not be offended by what is omitted):

Zen Master Hakuin writes that the political leader “can perform no greater act of virtue than to lighten burdensome taxation and maintain peace in their domain.” He is especially critical of the political leaders who live “a life of the greatest luxury…with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake …As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers...Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year…” ( see my blog article -  ). Zen Master Ikkyu was well known for his criticism of the various abuses of political and social elites, and especially by the religious elites. Korean Buddhist monks where involved in the anti-colonial movement against the Japanese occupation. Recently in Burma/Myanmar the monks are in the forefront of supporting the general population against the governmental abuses of power and economic oppression, as are the Tibetan monastics spearheading the work against the Chinese political and economic oppression of Tibet.

Our practice is right here, right now. Buddha Dharma is about the cause of suffering and an end to suffering. The Great Bodhisattva Vows include liberating/saving numberless beings, putting an end to inexhaustible desires. So, clarifying these matters, practicing these matters, what is the Buddha Dharma about capitalism, wealth, income and power disparities?

To be continued...

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith