Saturday, March 15, 2014

(Mis)Understanding Buddhism and Poverty

The UC Berkeley News Center has an article up now on the university's new course on "Buddhist Economics."  While I welcome any addition to the economics course curriculum that addresses the intersection of economics and ethics, I think the limitation of the course to Buddhism is somewhat faddish and needlessly limiting.

That aside, I also found some curious sentiments being expressed by the course's instructor, one Claire Brown.  Professor Brown has apparently been studying Buddhism (whatever we take that to mean) for six years.  Despite the fact that Prof. Brown is teaching a course on Buddhism and Economics, she does not seem to have actually understood the issues that arise.  Perhaps it is a defect of the journalism and Brown's views have been somehow misrepresented, but I find this unlikely since the views that Brown appears to hold are quite common among Western Buddhists (and liberals generally).

Take this quote that appears directly after the Don't Spend, Be Happy subhead which lays out a number of cogent (and potent) questions that Buddhist thought poses for economic theory and practice:
“In the traditional economic model, it makes sense to go shopping if you are feeling pain, because buying things makes you feel better,” Brown wrote in her class syllabus. “Yet, we know from experience that consuming more does not relieve pain. What if we lived in a society that did not put consumption at its center? What if we follow instead the Buddhist mandate to minimize suffering, and are driven by compassion rather than desire?”
This is a hopeful start; Prof. Brown is, in my opinion, asking the right questions here.  But a throw-away line that ends the article makes me think that she might not have figured out what the solutions to these questions might look like.

Brown assured her students that Buddhist economics wouldn’t require a vow of poverty. “Buddha tried to live in poverty for seven years,” but “it didn’t work,” she said.
Uh…actually the historical Buddha tried extreme asceticism and wrote that off as a blind alley. Asceticism: as in bodily mortification, extended fasting, etc. After Buddha gave up that route (still a popular one on the Indian sub-continent, btw) and adopted the “middle-path,” he and his disciples still spent time every day begging for alms: even in ancient India, that was a sure sign of poverty.

Here’s the thing: if you consume only that which you actually need, restrain yourself from activities that harm other life, and devote your life to easing the suffering of others, you will necessarily be considered poor. You will have given your excess wealth away to those poorer than you, your dwelling will be simple, your lifestyle spare. Not because you’re an ascetic, but because you have your priorities in line.

Buddhism is appealing to Americans largely, I think, because it doesn’t seem to demand any material sacrifice on the practitioner’s part. Americans like Buddhism because they’ve (mis)interpreted its message to be it’s ok to have lots of stuff, just so long as you aren’t attached to it.

For instance, there is a Marriott Hotel heiress living not 50 miles from me that has gained the title of “Lama Tsomo,” despite being a multi-billionaire (I’m looking at you, Linda). Supposedly, she’s trying to become a bodhisattva, whose mission on earth is to end the suffering of all sentient beings. Apparently, however, no one has hipped her to the fact that her 4.1 billion dollars could ease a whole lot of suffering, if only she could find the strength to let it go. But no, she prefers to teach meditation classes since, you know, all suffering is psychological and you just need to be detached and whatnot. Convenient, that.

Western Buddhism’s focus on personal non-attachment and psychological ‘growth’ all too often turns into a “blame the victim” mindset. What’s that you say? You’ve just been laid-off from your job and diagnosed with cancer? You don’t know where your next meal is coming from and you can’t afford to see a doctor? You should try meditation and detachment: nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Your suffering is all in your mind!  Don't blame the government or their corporate overlords for your misery, it's just your karma, embrace it…..which is way easier than actually trying to help someone improve their situation. Also it makes you feel superior, since you’re so much more wiser than those suffering sots.

The problem, of course, isn’t with Buddhism, but rather with academics like Brown who try to sugar-coat it for Western consumption, although I assume they do this unwittingly.

The deal with any religion is this: if you take it seriously as the most important thing in your life, you won’t worry about material possessions and you won’t need to take a vow of poverty. Prioritizing your spiritual development will make it easy to not notice, or care, if you become officially poor. As material wealth is not your goal, so too its absence will not be defeat. But Buddhists like Brown think that you can have your cake and eat it too: the material wealth as well as the (mostly BS) non-attachment to it.

The facts of the matter are that if you are not attached to wealth, wealth will not attach itself to you. If you prioritize your spiritual development, this will not cause you consternation.


Anonymous said...

The following is the comment that got lost in the bowels of WP at nakedcapitalism and supports you sentiments:

While the study of alternative "economic" models of society are useful academic exercises, I continue to be critical of the professors of such that say nothing about the underpinnings of our current system as the basis for their meanderings into unfettered inheritance and accumulating private ownership of property.

Why not a class on how to change inheritance and private ownership of property in ways that makes our world better instead of teaching folks to meditate their way to such a transition?

Diptherio said...

thanks for taking the time to make sure it got through.

I imagine a committed Buddhist would consider any inheritance an gift to be used to ease the suffering of sentient beings. Apparently, not everyone agrees.