Unsustainability: Could Western Institutions Benefit from “Eastern” Insights?

Friday was a tough day.  It was difficult not to be concerned with what Donald Trump’s presidency might mean for not only America, but the rest of the world in general.  Trump had littered his presidential campaign with numerous promises of what he would do upon election; some of them seemed attractive, even to me (surprisingly) and some seemed questionable.  However, upon hearing his Inauguration speech, which sounded more like the script from some dramatic sci-fi thriller with talk of “blood,” “carnage,” and “decay” of American society, one might think that we are on the verge of an Apocalyptic collapse into savagery which only he can prevent.  If nothing else, by framing the beginning of his presidency as such, how could the end of his reign be anything but a success, at least in his mind?  Anyway, Trump’s first act towards remedying this alleged decay of America was not to fulfill any of his major campaign promises, but rather to block cuts to FHA interest rate decreases which had been planned to assist lower-middle class families with the burden of homeownership.  In my opinion, not a good start to making America great again; by placing an increased burden on those who can probably least afford it, the lower middle class, and first time homeowners.  More recent news has come in suggesting that the current administration will cut funding to the arts and that the current Congress is paving the way for selling off some portion of federal lands including National Parks.  Maybe if we turn America into a giant strip mall of low-wage earning, drone-like employees that will be “great?”

Friday evening, I was commiserating with some fellow leftists and discussing where the process of our institutions had failed us in such a manner that we elected a person with zero political experience, a questionable moral character, and a dubious business background, to one of the most important political positions in the world.  We discussed topics ranging from our right (even our duty) to protest harmful government actions as we perceive them, what the inevitable termination of Obamacare might mean moving forward, and even the basis for building more responsive governmental institutions in the future.  While everyone seemed to agree that the Electoral College needs to go immediately if we are to truly reflect a democratic process and align governmental accountability to the desires and needs of our society, where some of us disagreed was how our institutions, in general, might be transformed.  Being fascinated by the possible application of Buddhist social theory to global capitalism (if nothing else, as a mitigating factor to laissez-faire economic policy) I argued that some basic premises of what a society should require from its government, and what a government should provide to its citizens, could be highly informed (if not enlightened) by some Eastern concepts.  I was disheartened to hear that even some of my most liberal friends found this idea questionable; responding that “you can’t interject Eastern ideas into a Western society and expect them to take roots and make everything better.”  A fair enough position, but I began to wonder the next day, why not?

In recent Western history, Buddhism has become somewhat of an en vogue idea touted by New Age philosophers, “enlightened” celebrities and intellectuals, and even used by some professional sports organizations such as the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks to increase mindfulness and present thinking as a way to improve quality of life.  While this is all wonderful, the simple fact remains that most people still view Buddhism as a foreign religion which is more idealist than practical; that is, it focuses on a spiritual realm of existence which is incompatible with Western-style philosophies because it is empirically difficult to verify.  Anyone who has read a shred of Buddhist text or commentary knows that Buddhism is less a religion than a worldview and a guide to self-transformation.  Accordingly, the Buddha really only taught on one subject, how to end suffering.  Most of these teachings focus on individual transformation of the self from a state of egoic disillusionment to one of enlightened interconnectivity.  Perhaps this focus on the individual self is why Buddhism has transitioned nicely into New Age western philosophies of writers like Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Dan Millman, ironically (for materialists, anyway), yielding empirically verifiable results akin to the effectiveness of psychoanalysis or psychotropic drugs in depression/anxiety patients.  This recent blossoming of Western interest from some parts of the medical industry, academic community, and individuals looking for better ways of self-improvement, opens the door to at least validating the basic starting point for this conversation on a social level.

In terms of a social theory, Buddhism does not really offer too much explicit guidance, as the world that the Buddha lived in looked drastically different than the postmodern one we inhabit.  However, scholars like David Loy have begun to argue that Western institutions and Eastern philosophies could mutually benefit from a sort of quid pro quo exchange of ideas concerning socioeconomic policy and responsibility.[1]  Again, the main premises of Buddhist practices, ending suffering and increasing compassionate awareness, in my opinion, flow naturally from most modern or postmodern Western ideas concerning the nature of the welfare state and charitable giving.  If Western ideas concerning the role of the government in social improvement programs are aimed at anything, it is, or should be, alleviating the suffering of the largest number of people possible.  Isn’t the entire basis of the government, especially in a democracy (or an alleged democracy) to serve the needs and desires of the people?  In this respect, I argue that Eastern ideas are not only compatible with most postmodern Western thinking, they fit nicely, if certain hubris can be removed or remedied.

I think what my friend was saying when she stated that these two philosophies are incompatible was that materialistic capitalism and Buddhist theory cannot coexist.  Admittedly, I feel there is a lot that the former could take from the later to improve its effectiveness as a social-organizing maxim.  Capitalism is based on the premise that every citizen pursuing his/her own self-interest will achieve the highest degree of efficiency, economic prosperity, and social benefit (in a utilitarian sense) for the society as a whole.  More modern economic theory has posited the collective need for governments and corporations to bestow the benefits of this system on the “undeveloped” nations of the world.  Capitalism has certainly improved the quality of life for many of the early-industrializing nations and led to significant technological, medical, and philosophical breakthroughs that have eased the burden of life.  All of these points, however, are speaking to a physical or materially observable condition or conceptualization of life that can be statistically or numerically verified by economists, governments, and social planners to tell us which nations are the “healthiest,” socially speaking.  The Human Development Index or comparative measures of Gross National Product are such figures.  These figures speak to an empirically-backed confidence that a relative measure of material consumerist ability is the “best” way to judge a society’s merits.  In this respect, Buddhism parts ways with material capitalism significantly.

Being a philosophy and not a science, Buddhist social theory looks more towards the overall health of a society and its members, physically and spiritually.  Thus, some societies that are materially poor may be more enlightened and spiritually rich, while some very wealthy societies may be morally bankrupt.  I can see some of my friends, colleagues, and readers cringing now at the thought of government institutions being measured by the moral health of its corresponding society.  How would we even do that?  What numbers, statistics, and factors could we look to for comparative analysis?  Perhaps the better question is why do we default to materialistic comparisons when discussing subjects like profound social change that make us all a little uneasy?  The answer probably lies somewhere between that the methodology is an established dogmatic custom and that it’s answers bring us some measure of comfort and confidence by bolstering our worldview.

Contrary to what many people now believe, economics and empiricism is itself a kind of pseudo-religion in the postmodern world, where alleged objectivity has replaced a sense of moral responsibility towards one’s neighbors and community.  The historical reality is that on a basic, fundamental level, these sciences too are formulated on the basis of moral judgments about individuals and societies.  One such judgment is that character traits such as honesty, efficiency, and trust work best to produce happiness.  Another is that humans are capable of separating themselves from their personal, subjective experiences and remain objective in their observations of the “real world.”  Just taking these two examples, we can see both the influence of traditional religion and the creation of a dualistic self that is separate from not only all other humans but from the world, in general.  This is, of course, the great Cartesian Dualism, the separation of mind and matter.  Indeed, these sciences thrive on the concepts of duality, individuality, human exceptionalism, and the alleged standardized behavior of “rational actors.”  Materialism itself presupposes a universe that functions in a mechanistic fashion based on the separation of the physical from the spiritual, the moral from the material, and the human from the rest of the world.  Loy argues that this is hubris carried over from the Enlightenment period when faith in empiricism began to replace faith in traditional spiritual values as the most effective worldview.[2]   In this historical context, scientific and social progress was contrasted with the role the “Second Estate” usually played in counterrevolution or social regression.  Another explanation is that the historical memory of those leaders and philosophers who advanced empiricism (and the people who subsuqeuntly embraced it) had been heavily traumatized by the Church’s involvement in numerous historical crimes to such a degree that the underlying doctrine was disregarded as a reaction to the deeds of the institutionalized components of the Faith.  Essentially, the baby was thrown out with the bath water.  However, we continue to apply similar measures and logic to fabricate notions of progress in a context that is much different than in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.  Controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake has argued that this belief in the redeeming, omnipotent qualities of science has not only become the “default worldview of educated people” but has also become dogmatic to such an extent that it inhibits scientific and social progress.[3]  While Sheldrake is careful to point out that this philosophical, moralistic component differs substantially from the concept of scientific inquiry or the Scientific Method, in general, his basic premise aligns with Loy’s argument.  Could it be that we shook off the chains of one deterministic worldview only to supplant it with another equally judgmental, imperialistic worldview, albeit a much more covert one in terms of limiting our personal ethical responsibility, culpability, and connectivity to our fellow species?

If any of what I just said is accurate (and I’m sure some people will argue it is not) it may be an appropriate time to ask ourselves what alternative methods, like Buddhist social theory, may be able offer us in the West in terms of altering our governmental institutions?  To begin, we must understand that we do not need to adopt Eastern institutions to take heed of Buddhist principles.  I have already discussed above the connection between concepts like social welfare and the Buddhist aim of ending suffering.  In Buddhist philosophy, suffering has three causes: greed, ill-will, and delusion, which must be transformed into generosity, compassion, and wisdom in order to end suffering.  Sounds great so far, but to the default view of the materialistic westerner, I can see the eyes rolling and the thought of “oh great, another wish-washy idealism which is hard enough to grasp individually, never mind to execute collectively as a social theory.”  In response, I would ask simply which picture of reality seems more idealistic; one that relies on the assumption that all humans given the same set of circumstances will act not only rationally but in a similar fashion, or one that views the universe as interconnected?  Anyone who has been stuck in a traffic jam, attended a sporting event or rock concert, or been to a casino knows that humans are capable of supremely irrational behavior quite frequently.  Luckily, it is not that difficult to implement some Buddhist social theory into our system and involves a simple reorganization of our priorities.

It is easy enough to see how greed is a requisite characteristic of the material, capitalist system.  In order for the system to work, there must be demand for material objects; this is consumerism.  The entire system is based on the premise that once capital is acquired it must be reinvested into the system to produce more capital, to produce more goods, to satisfy an endless need for consumption.  On the individual level, greed comes from wanting to possess more than is necessary to the detriment of another.  Wealth itself is not the problem if legitimately acquired and can serve some very great aims in the form of philanthropy and charity, but all too often we glorify the massive accumulation of wealth as the primary object of our existence.  Buddhist theory sees the problem with consumerism as a distraction from the real issue; at our core, we are selfless, empty beings.  We use consumerism and material desire for objects to temporarily fill that void; in other words, our happiness is contingent on possession.  Individuals make up society, so it is easy to see how this would play out as it has into a collective “chicken and egg” problem.  Yet, society can also have a profound impact on us as individuals through things like culture and custom.  If we are to transform greed into generosity we have to do work on both levels.  Individually, we must shake off the conditioning of material acquisitiveness droned into us by the constant bombardment of advertising and public relations; the curse of modern technology.  Collectively, we need to reprioritize our social efforts to alleviating physical poverty around the globe.  Suffering has a very observable physical component too, in the form of poor health, lack of access to health care, clean water, decent housing, and education.  It is absolutely false that addressing this issue is beyond our financial or logistical capabilities.  Just to mention a quick example that Loy gives (for all you stat lovers), in 1999, the United Nations Human Development Report estimated that around the globe, 435 billion dollars was spent on advertising alone, not including public relations or marketing.[4]  The UNHRD from 1998 estimated that the total cost to provide and maintain universal access to basic education, health care, food, water, and sanitation for the entire world would be $40 billion/year![5] The same report noted that at that time this represented about four percent of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world and about twice the annual amount expended by Americans and Europeans on pet food![6]  The purpose of this is not to guilt you into buying into my position or make you feel bad for feeding Fido; it is to help you wake up to the reality that the kind of greed we exhibit on a daily basis (often without even considering it, myself included) could undoubtedly be transformed into generosity by simply reprioritizing our spending and humanitarian efforts.  With the basic necessities of survival provided, would crime not decrease?  Could government spending in other areas related to economic maldistribution be rerouted back into spurring technological innovations in services which promote social well-being, like education and health care?  I would argue they could and would, if we so chose.

Ill-will is manifested in a material capitalist society as a Social Darwinian concept that the “fittest” are entitled to the greatest share of the world’s limited material resources.  Since there is only so much of X and Y to go around, you and I (or America and Russia) are competing to gain possession of it.  Envy and avarice naturally piggyback on greed and in a society that prizes accumulation of material wealth as a sign of superiority, we have a receipt for disaster in terms of never-ending competition with our neighbors and even family members (sometimes these are the most violent competitions).  Buddhism views these emotions as destructive, nonproductive, and negative.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of corporate relations.  Corporations evolved out of the Renaissance-era desire to limit an individual’s financial liability in outfitting imperialist explorations into the New World.  Thus, the corporation and imperialism grew up side-by-side and it is of little surprise that the entity has nicely served the aims of globalization in the postmodern era. However, the corporation owes no duty to its employees, customers, or governing sovereign power, but rather only to its anonymous shareholders.  The priorities of these shareholders can be as diverse and infinite as imaginable, yet their only involvement with the corporation is one of hopeful financial benefit.  Corporate charters that were issued by the state or locality used to be subject to revocability if they were interfering with governmental or social priorities in a negative way.  This has changed and in a world where many transnational corporations operate in many countries, under many different sets of laws and customs, and to the responsibility of no one but the shareholders (and only in a financial sense at that) it is easy to see how any kind of ethical responsibility to a greater common good is diffused to such an extent that such responsibility, for which there is historical precedent, is absolved.  Much of this is baggage created by the legal fiction that a corporation is a person, entitled to Constitutional protections just like you and I, codified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century amidst an atmosphere of rampant laissez-faire capitalism.  Thus, corporate freedom of speech is protected in the form of campaign financing and lobbying efforts and corporate rights to Equal Protection are on par with any individual’s.  This begs the question of accountability.  A Buddhist would ask, can a corporation become enlightened; can it show compassion or love, feel guilt or take responsibility for misdeeds like you or I can?  If not, then it is not a person but a manifestation of institutionalized desires.  The bigger problem is that now we have so much law in place that corporations have rights and lives of their own in which they are really accountable to no one.  There is no moral or ethical responsibility to act in concert with cultural norms or beneficent social theory.  Some will argue that this is not the purpose or the responsibility of the corporation but rather of its agents or governmental overseer.  A fair enough point but it is of little comfort in a system where high positions of business and governmental power are essentially one in the same.  We need only look at the incoming administration to see how interwoven positions of high corporate and government power are interlinked.  Again, this reverts to the idea that corporations are people, entitled to free speech on social and political issues but with only a real financial responsibility.  This setup is a breeding ground for practicing ill-will and greed on a collective level to benefit a small minority of the population materially while diffusing ethical and moral responsibility.

So what’s the answer?  The third cause of suffering, Buddhist’s claim, is delusion.  The primary delusion is that there is an ego or self that is separate and apart from the rest of the universe.  This is probably the most difficult concept for Westerners to grasp because of the aforementioned “default” worldview of most educated people that there is a distinct, observable material separation between “myself” and the rest of the world.  However, if we want to transform delusion into wisdom, Buddhism teaches that we must experience our oneness with the universe.  In Buddhist theory, this is exemplified by the metaphor of Indra’s Net, where everything in the universe is represented by an infinite net with reflective gems located at each intersection of the net which reflect every other gem.  In my opinion, this is the linchpin of Buddhist philosophy; if we were to accept or borrow nothing else from Buddhism, this precept would be enough to cure most individual and social ills.  Why?  Because when I do harm to another through greed or ill-will, I harm myself; and when I am compassionate and generous, I am loving myself as well as others.

If this sounds familiar it is because it is; this is the Golden Rule manifested in another cultural vehicle.  Perhaps Buddhist theory isn’t as foreign as we thought?!  Is it of any wonder then that both Loy, a Buddhist social commentator, and Sheldrake, a biologist concerned with institutionalized scientific, dogmatic fictions, both cite Spinoza, a seventeenth century Dutch philosopher who preached a pre-Enlightenment non-duality, the perfect order of natural processes, and the necessity of both good and evil, which have no inherent meanings?  Or, that quantum theory is now understanding and verifying what Buddhists have long claimed as the interconnectivity of all things in a symbiotic universalistic process?  Delusion is slowly being eroded from both ends of the spectrum; from some in the scientific community and some in the religious community.

In terms of putting theory into practice, some basic starting points would be using wealth and technology for the benefit of the entire planet; human beings and ecological systems.  As discussed above, financially this is feasible and all humans should be entitled to basic healthcare, shelter, sustainable food supply, clean water, and sanitation.  From that point, we need to be respectful of other cultures’ priorities which differ from ours.  Capitalism is a wonderful vehicle for spurring technological innovation but what good is that innovation if we aggrandize and glorify miserliness and hoarding?  In the same respect, more traditional societies which do not value materialism as we do (news flash, there are many) should be respected and not extorted, or neglected.  Remember, when we act out of ill-will or greed we are really hurting ourselves.  Finally, we desperately need to reform our system of corporate law and campaign finance.  Corporations are not people; the sky is not green.  The longer we remain deluded, the more harm we do to ourselves and others.  We need to put into place some kind of review procedure for revoking corporate charters if they conflict with social well-being.  Economics, business, and technology are not ends of their own or deterministic controls over our actions; they are man-made beliefs systems which should be subservient to and employed for a greater social good.

So why do I write this now?  It brings us full-circle to the incoming president and his Inauguration speech.  In my opinion, Trump’s election represents a potential historic crossroads.  The fear of the “carnage” and industrial decay he talked about in his speech is likely the single most important reason he was elected.  The waning of America as a superpower and the phobia it has created in terms of a “how can we get back to our glory days” is the basis for the rhetoric “Make America Great Again.”  But when was that?  At our Founding?  After the Civil War?  After WWI, WWII? When Communism fell?  When we extend the franchise to all citizens?  When civil rights were enlarged?  Can it even be pinpointed to a single moment, action, era, or generation?  If not, then what the hell are we aiming for?  We are aiming for an idea; an imagined, conjured, nostalgic image of the past as better and the future as scary and uncertain.  So who is really the more abstract, idealist?  Perhaps we are coming to realize (consciously for some, unconsciously for others) the unsustainability of our perceived “greatness.”  If we base our economy and our worldview on endless growth and progress, it is by definition unsustainable when confronted with our conceptualization of materialism in relation to our working definition of happiness in the postmodern “real world.”  Maybe it is time we take a look at alternative definitions of happiness, of growth, and of progress.  It cannot hurt.  Buddhist theory helps us see the non-duality of good and evil, of the self and nature, of delusion and wisdom, and of fear and compassion.  In order to experience one we must experience the other at some point.  This is how wisdom is created.  This could be our crossroads

[1] See, David R. Loy, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Boston; Wisdom Publications, 2003).

[2] Ibid., 68-69.

[3] Talk given by Rupert Sheldrake available on exopolitik.org at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR1SLQwHDog.

[4] Loy, The Great Awakening, 80.

[5] Ibid., 70-71.

[6] Ibid.


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