issue 15
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The Politics of Compassion

Advocate of Engaged Buddhism, Ken Jones believes we need both personal and social transformation to address the critical problems of the modern world

Living 2,500 years after the Buddha, our primary task is, as it always has been, to open the ‘Third Eye’ – the eye that perceives the true nature of the human condition. But what has happened over those two and a half millennia now also requires us to open a Fourth Eye, which can see how the Three Fires of greed, ill-will and ignorance have shaped the social culture of modernity. Intellectual understanding is not enough. We need to understand how the self creates an identity out of our speedy, clever, anxious culture.

A sophisticated Buddhist explanation of how society works and history evolves is essential if there is to be widespread conviction of the need for outer as well as inner change in creating a better future. It is no longer enough simply to argue that our ills are down to personal delusion. How much longer can conventional Buddhist teaching ignore the social forces that fire up the individual? If the roots of greed are to be exposed, why not the consumerism that feeds them? If truculence and rancour, why not the aggressive, ‘in-your-face’ culture that stokes up hatred and makes it socially acceptable?

Lack of awareness of how our culture shapes our behaviour and perceptions can make us impervious to the forces at work in the social arena. The traditional misogyny of most religious traditions is a case in point. And there have been many insightful sages whose public views have been naïve, pedestrian, crudely prejudiced, or just downright silly. Carl Jung sometimes reads as a pre-war Swiss-German bourgeois. Yasutani Roshi even added anti-Semitism to his enthusiasm for Japanese imperial aggression. Indeed Japanese ‘Imperial Way Buddhism’ is the grossest example of how a socially quietistic Buddhism – preoccupied with individual awakening – is vulnerable to cultural and political co-option.

Delusion Supercharged

The existential delusion expounded by the Buddha with regard to individual minds is today embedded in aggressive and acquisitive social structures and institutions. Over the past 2,500 years the Three Fires have created a society that would be considered pathological in an individual. Following the Second World War Arthur Koestler concluded that, ‘if one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of his history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted with some built-in mental disorder which drives him towards self-destruction’.

Social cultures legitimise and inflame the ego’s appetites, whether in patriotic wars or in the shopping mall. Delusion is institutionalised through belongingness – identifying with a nationality, ethnic group, social class, gender and so on. We define our collective identity over and against them, upon whom we gratifyingly project our rancour. Every day tabloid newspapers demonstrate how this works.

Society legitimises and rewards those strong enough to build an identity through ‘standing out’ or ‘making their mark’, however heartlessly they achieve this. This is especially so in our present highly individualistic culture. Its public face is global, free-market capitalism – today’s dominant ideology. Like older ideologies it offers a simplistic world view, substituting market forces for social ethics while proclaiming ‘the end of ideology’.

The World Trade Organisation and similar bodies have produced a large and growing body of regulation, which denies most of the world’s population the ability to challenge a purportedly ‘free’ market that in fact disadvantages them. Of the six billion people in the world half live at subsistence level, and one billion of these live brief lives of abject poverty. Of the other half, two billion scrape a living on the fringes of the money economy. The remaining billion have a more or less regular income and can aspire to the ‘culture of contentment’ offered by consumerism and enjoyed by a small minority within that billion.

At the very top are 350 people whose estimated wealth exceeds that of 45 per cent of the world’s population and would be sufficient to remedy a wide range of global material needs. Even in the industrial countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing. And, beyond the statistics of Gross National Product, a wide range of indicators suggest that the quality of life of most people is steadily falling.

I shop therefore I am

If free-market ideology is the theology of modernity then consumerism is its popular religion. Unaware human beings are insatiable animals. They experience as needs all those wants that lie beyond sufficiency. It is not so much the usefulness or beauty of an object or experience that makes it desirable. What momentarily fills the sense of lack is the act of possession, the excitement of acquiring what the object stands for. It may be the exotic holiday which ‘takes you out of yourself’, an attractive partner, or just the logo on a garment. Style, power, culture, savoir-faire, a caring green image, or even the expectation of spiritual enlightenment can all be purchased by buying the goods and experiences that symbolise them. Consumer culture is the water in which we swim, and it is much deeper than advertisements or shopping trolleys. As William Burroughs observed: ‘The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer; he sells the consumer to the product’.

With a little abstinence we can sense the addictiveness of consumerism and the lust for novelty; then the ordinary, the simple, the local can become more accessible and enjoyable. But our culture works against such subversion. Again, there is no boundary between ‘personal’ and ‘social’ awareness. Acquisitiveness is always culturally mediated, and it helps to know how an acquisitive culture defines and fosters the root acquisitive urge. This is why the Religion of the Market has received particular attention from some socially engaged Buddhists.

The prime mover of modernity is an urgent striving to find fulfilment within by liberation without. Liberation from all that discomfits our fragile sense of self or deepens our sense of lack. We have achieved such an amazing capacity to fix things according to our wishes that we have become dependent on that fix to give us the peace we crave. That dependence is there in our society’s relentless push for economic growth, without which capitalism in its present form could not survive.

Now this growth has come up against the limits of the ecosystem, and the problem is terminally imperative. The ecosystem is truly the bottom line, and it may force a transition to a different kind of society. We have the resources for an ecologically sustainable society but, as matters stand, we show no signs of being able to achieve one. I believe a Buddhist social theory that can convincingly explain the problem, and promote thought and debate, is an essential preliminary to effective action.

Two ways beyond suffering

‘Suffering I teach, and the way out of suffering’, preached the Buddha. What, in the 21st century, is the way out of its suffering? I believe there are two ways, that we need both, and that they are essentially the same.

The first way is radically changing how we experience sickness, old age and death – all the seemingly inescapable sufferings of life. The extreme individualism of our era offers both promise and failure. Modernity offers an unprecedented range of ways to evade reality, ranging from techno-triumphalism to the narcissism of consumer culture and the mass media.

But there is also an individualism of authenticity, integrity and autonomy. Through the 500 years of modernity many thinkers have sought the quintessential ‘self’. But the experience has increasingly been like that of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who peeled away successive layers of an onion, finding, at last: nothing! Buddhism, and other inner-path spiritualities, have entered the discussion, however; and Buddhism points to an ‘inconceivable liberation’ through accepting and transcending our sense of lack. In this way the crisis in western individualism is potentially creative. Such a view acknowledges the positive aspects of modernity rather than condemning it out of hand.

Buddhism is still mainly available as a pre-modern Asian cultural artefact. The convergence of Buddhism and modernity may depend on shaping an undiminished perennial core Buddhism into a form more appropriate to modern culture. For some this means stripping Asian Buddhism of what is perceived as a culturally alien religiosity and substituting an agnostic path of spiritual enquiry. But attempts to adapt Buddhism to contemporary needs require spiritual maturity to ensure that it is Buddhism that transforms modernity, and not vice versa. This points to the continuing value of received – and well-tried – forms of Buddhism.

The midwife of radical social change

The second way out of suffering is peculiar to our times. It lies in the potential of Buddhism and allied spiritualities to function as catalysts in modernity’s project of social emancipation. This has liberated millions from pain and deprivation by means ranging from environmental health to representative democracy. But two reservations need to be made. Firstly, this process has been so flawed, problematic and uneven that some have discounted it entirely. Moreover the evolution of modernity has now run into such profound difficulties, from the personal to the planetary, that its sustainability is in question.

Traditionally for Buddhists suffering has been seen as a personal matter, a karmic self-infliction, and the way beyond suffering has also been envisaged in personal terms. Despite a Bodhisattva tradition of compassionate good deeds, traditional Buddhism has rarely questioned the ethics of the established order. More broadly, understanding of social structures and institutions, and the strategies by which they might be radically changed, has had to await the age of revolutions and social sciences.

There are contemporary Buddhist teachers who apparently deny the power of social structures; they still see society as no more than the sum of its members, and social change no more than the sum of individual change. Yet the Buddha, who lived in a relatively simple society, appreciated the power of social conditioning. In the Kutadanta Sutta the Buddha argues that widespread criminality and social disorder are best remedied not by punitive legislation but by skilful public subsidies to boost agriculture and trade and by employing adequately paid officials.

The first requirement of Buddhists is to look within and take responsibility for their own lifestyles. This implies informed concern for the environment and social justice in one’s shopping and travel habits, for example, as well as skilful generosity. However, personal example alone cannot change the deeply ingrained social conditioning of millions, nor the behaviour of large numbers of decent people trapped in the logic of harmful institutions.

Some of us may be so preoccupied and even exhausted by livelihood, child-rearing or care of family or friends that there is little opportunity for wider active compassion. Charity does indeed begin at home. But direct action to relieve suffering is also important, whether through soup kitchens, warm clothing, or counselling and comfort. Wholesale social change takes time ... but responding to suffering here and now cannot wait.

In the diverse movement known as Engaged Buddhism there are many who are creatively involved in social and environmental protest, in the development of alternative social and economic initiatives, and in the slow work of reshaping existing institutions. We have the beginnings of a global coalition for radical social change. It is predominantly non-ideological, non-violent, ecologically aware and dedicated to participatory democracy and social justice.

Steady state people

But before we address a broader agenda for radical social change we need to take responsibility for our lifestyles. An ecologically sustainable ‘steady state’ economy, with a measure of social equality and immunity from consumerism would require constraints at all levels. To avoid a descent into totalitarianism these would need to be internalised into easeful restraint. A steady state society requires steady state people, who have liberated themselves from psychological dependence on the market and the state. Such unprecedented public-spiritedness requires awareness of the ego agendas of power and dependency that have capsized all such previous projects. Finally, as EF Schumacher observed, true citizenship implies a mutuality that is spiritually enhancing. Inner path spirituality is not only the necessary midwife for a new historical era. When we are without modernity’s futile evasions of our sense of lack, might we not feel more inclined to turn inwards to authentic contemplation and the transcendence of the pain of being human?

I believe that Buddhism’s destiny is to win the conviction of all who share the ecological and social ideals I have outlined, and to teach them that their work must be underpinned by a culture of existential awakening if it is to succeed and endure. This implies a culture of in-depth self-inquiry.

Firstly, we need to be continually concerned with mindfulness and this requires the support of regular sitting meditation. We must restore spiritual development to equal status with social, cultural and technical work (which it lost in modern times). The meditative ‘workout’ should become as much a part of the daily routine as the physical workout. We should maintain mindfulness just as we maintain bodily hygiene. Reflective solitude should be as normal as the social round.

Meetings or committees should not only address their business agendas but also take time to check out the inner business its members bring with them. The tools of group process and interpersonal skills development have long been available as well as those of mediation and conflict resolution. But these need to be related to spiritual growth and not seen merely as techniques. In the widely-acclaimed work of people as diverse as Daniel Golman (on ‘emotional intelligence’) and Jon Kabat-Zinn (on mindfulness meditation for daily life) there are already the beginnings of the wide diffusion of this culture of awakening. It is dharmically informed and widely appealing.

Secondly, and within wider networks of practice and social engagement, the support of a small affinity group is invaluable, even though their potential has hardly been explored in traditional Buddhist practice.

Thirdly, social and ecological activism are important contemporary expressions of the Buddhist practice of dana (generosity). This is not only objectively beneficial; it can also be inwardly transformative. A culture of service and activism, liberated from power, ego trips and ideological agendas, should be the socially transformative end of a culture of awakening.

With the opening of the Fourth Eye, Buddhism and allied spiritualities could converge with modernity to transcend its search for an authentic selfhood. At the same time they could make an indispensable contribution to its emancipatory project and the achievement of ecological sustainability.