Friday, February 22, 2013

Buddhism and society

In the three-yana system of Buddhism, it's taught that the focus moves from liberation of the individual (the hinyana, or lesser vehicle) to the bodhisattva ideal of liberation of all beings (The mahayana, or great vehicle, and vajrayana, or diamond/indstructible vehicle, which uses different methods but the same ideas as the mahayana). Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about a fourth yana, the kalapayana, or imperial vehicle, seemingly the liberation of society.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of Shambhala and son of Trungpa Rinpoche, has made Enlightened Society his focus in recent years. As a Shambhala students, I've wrestled with this idea a lot since attending the Enlightened Society Assembly retreat a year ago.

I've struggled with the question of whether society can be enlightened, whether society has basic goodness or buddhanature. It's a struggle because society has not existence of its own, that I can see; it's constructed by the people who are in it. If it's built by confusion and delusion, is the society then essentially confused and deluded? Does it perpetrate that? Societies -- and their institutions -- do take on a life of their own over time. They have an energy, a culture that sets expectations for how people should be treated, what behavior is in line with the larger values and mores.

In theory, enlightened society -- with social institutions that are an expression of basic goodness -- is possible. But it depends on those who create it. Both David Loy and Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi, two prominent Buddhist teachers, argue that in modern society the “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion, outlined by the Buddha as obstacles to our awakening, have become institutionalized in the economic system, militarism, and the media.

Loy in October sent a letter to William George, who he describes as George is "an important figure in the 'mindfulness in business' movement, as well as ... a professor in Harvard’s MBA program. George has written some influential books that emphasize the importance of ethics and mindfulness in the marketplace, while serving on the boards of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, and Medtronic, companies not known for behaving in mindful ways.

In  his letter to George, Loy wrote:
I do not know how your meditation practice has affected your personal life, nor, for that matter, what type of meditation or mindfulness you practice. Given your unique position, my questions are: how has your practice influenced your understanding of the social responsibility of large corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil? And what effects has your practice had personally on your advisory role within those corporations?

Loy goes on to outline Goldman Sachs' major role in the economic crisis and charges of a "txic environment" in the company's offices, Exxon Mobil's effect on the environment its position on global warming, and asks:

I would like to learn how, in the light of your meditation practice, you understand the relationship between one’s own personal transformation and the kind of economic and social transformation that appears to be necessary today, if we are to survive and thrive during the next few critical centuries. How does your concern for future generations express itself in your activities as a board member of these corporations (among others)? Are you yourself skeptical about global warming? If not, how do you square that with your role at ExxonMobil?

In the introduction to his letter  posted on The Buddhist Peace Fellowship's website, Loy writes:

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that one can be well-intentioned and yet play an objectionable role in an economic system that has become unjust and unsustainable – in fact, a challenge to the well-being of all life on this planet. ... I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that today the traditional “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion, have become institutionalized as our economic system, militarism, and the media. If so, what does that imply for our engaged Buddhist practice?
Ven. Bikkhu Bodi, founder of Buddhist Global Relief

Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi address that same question in an interview with Religion Dispatches, an online magazine. You should read it; it has an abudnace of good stuff. He describes how his own practice moved from personal transformation to social justice, hw he became convinced that it is "necessary to translate such values as loving-kindness and compassion into concrete action in order to reduce the socially-created suffering that so many people today, less fortunate than ourselves, must face as a daily ordeal.

He talks about attending a conference on Engaged Buddhism, the term often used to describe Buddhist practice in the world, rather than on the cushion. Bodhi writes:

At the Conference on Engaged Buddhism the participants could be seen to fall roughly into two camps: a majority camp, made up of those who accepted the present structures of society and sought to use Buddhist teachings to enable people to function more effectively and peacefully within its contours; and a minority camp, made up of those who sought to draw from the Dharma a radical critique of the dominant social ethos and its institutions.

I would put myself in the latter camp. But I could see that, absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.
Like Loy, he says that the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are now manifested in social institutions:
Social systems and institutions molded by greed, hatred, and delusion have become so pervasive in their reach that they deeply impact the destinies of whole populations, both nationally and globally. Greed, hatred, and delusion thus generate suffering not merely as factors in individual minds but also in their systemic and institutional embodiments.

For this reason, a solution to the problem of suffering requires that its roots be extricated at multiple levels, including those collective levels touched only distantly by classical Buddhism. This would entail developing a keen diagnosis of how these defilements produce collective suffering, and how we can adopt alternative ways of living that would mitigate their harmful impact.
Issues such as climate change, social injustice, and glaring economic inequality "are moral issues as much as political ones," he says, and that Buddhists and Buddhist teachers have a moral responsibility to speak out on them. To avoid addressing those issues out of fear of “tainting the Dharma,” or “mixing up spirituality with worldly affairs,” is "reneging on (the) obligation" to illuminate these problems from a Buddhist moral perspective. He cautions, however, that "it degrades the dignity of the Dharma for Buddhist leaders, in their role as Buddhist leaders, to become embroiled in partisan politics, that is, to align themselves and their organizations with a particular political party or campaign for a specific candidate."

Most of us don't sit on the boards of multinational corporations. But we do buy products, vote, and act within societies. If we are truly practicing Buddhism, we have to do those things in mindful ways. Mindfulness that isn't linked to action is nothing more than self-help. You might as well buy some $1,000 meditation pants and expect them to take you to enlightenment, no matter what you do in them.

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