Posted February 10, 2004
Book: Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, & Ecological Wisdom
Edited by Roger S. Gottlieb
Roman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, pp: 651
An excerpt from the Jacket:
This sweeping anthology shows how religion has joined with and learned from movements of social justice, peace, and ecological wisdom. It includes theology, social critique, position papers, denominational statements, manifestos, rituals, prayers, biographical accounts, and journalistic descriptions of real-world struggles, beginning with a survey of ethical teachings from traditional sources. Containing voices from a multitude of traditions, national settings, and perspectives, Liberating Faith is the definitive introduction to global religious social activism, offering a visionary alternative to both repressive fundamentalism and spiritless secularism.
An excerpt from the Book:
Alternatives to Consumerism by Sulak Sivaraksa
Sulak Sivaraksa is a prominent Thai social critic and activist, and one of the major sources of contemporary engaged Buddhism. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the Right Livelihood award in 1995. This essay illustrates the particular sensibility someone from an Eastern tradition can bring to criticisms of globalization.
Consumerism can be defined as the religion of consumption – attributing ultimate meaning to purchasing power. Economic growth at the cost of the poor has become the driving force of globalization even though world leaders try to hide this fact with cosmetic measures and rhetoric.
Undeniably, the fuel that keeps the capitalist engine running is profit: the more of it, the better, the argument goes. Hence, corporations must be free to pursue it — at all costs. The ends justify the means. It is also argued that the profit generated by the system will eventually trickle down to benefit the mass of humanity. The available evidence points otherwise. To be fair, capitalism does generate some benefits to humanity, but they are largely unintended byproducts of the system.
Capitalism works by exploiting labor and natural resources in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of an elite group. For maximum results, capitalism alienates humans from their communities, families, and ultimately, their spiritual selves by attributing worth solely in terms of economic value.. The atomistic individual, rather than a larger community, is at the center of the capitalist system. Consumerism is able to dominate much of contemporary society because individuals have become alienated from their culture and from each other. The sense of community that led people to share scarce resources and work cooperatively has been supplanted by an anger, competitiveness, and fear that cause people to seek acquisitions at the expense of their neighbors. In sum, consumerism is a consequence of using greed and violence to regulate socioeconomic relations.
At the most profound level, consumerism owes its vitality to the delusion of the autonomous individual self; a self that exists independently of social relations and of human relations with nature — a human person thrown into the world. For the Buddha it was clear that the “self” constituted only a pattern of persistently changing experiences that had no more substance or permanence than those experiences.
We are deluded into seeking some transcendental subject; something that defines experience yet lies beyond the experience. We are exhorted to know ourselves and yet the “self” in this dualistic system remains unknowable. For the Buddhists, this delusion is the fundamental cause of suffering. Ontologically, we become estranged aspects of our experiences of others and ourselves. Hence we are precluded from any meaningful conception of identity.
Consumerism provides an artificial means to define our existence by suggesting that identity is realized through the process of acquisition. Put differently, consumerism is a perverse corollary of the Cartesian proof of personal existence: “I shop, therefore I am.” Insatiable consumption is equated with ultimate happiness, freedom, and self-realization. As David Arnott, a British Buddhist and human rights activist, explains:
“By participating in the sacrament of purchase, sacrificing money, you can buy an object that is not so much an object as a focus of images which grants you a place in the system of images you hold sacred. For a while when you buy a car you also buy the power, prestige, sexuality, and success which the advertisements have succeeded in identifying with the car, or whatever the commodity is. Consumerism works by identifying the sense of unsatisfactoriness or lack (dukkha) we all hold at a deep level of mind . . .and then [by corporations] producing an object guaranteed to satisfy that “need.”“
Corporatization depends on greed, delusion, and hatred in order t become entrenched in the global society and in the individual and is thus an anathema to the goals of Buddhism. When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relational idea of “self,” the result is greed and selfishness. Neoliberalist rhetoric deludes people and international organizations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumerism deludes the people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness. Lastly, competitive consumerism depends on callousness and hatred to prevent people from forming coalitions to challenge the existing system. Hatred is a force that paralyzes and prevents self-transformation and cooperative strategies.
In Buddhism, prosperity is defined as “more being.” As such, it cannot be realized atomistically, only collectively, and with an emphasis on spirituality. Buddhism denounces and renounces greed, because it is seen as leading one down the perfidious road of aggression and hatred — in a word, of suffering. Greed can never lead to satisfaction, individually or collectively. Thus Buddhism seeks to show how to be content with changing oneself — that is, self-cultivation – and emphasizes the importance of caring about, promoting, and benefitting from one another’s well-being. Whereas capitalism treats a person as only half-human — the economic dimension (e.g., greed, hatred, and selfishness) is cultivated to the exclusion of other considerations – Buddhism approaches a human person holistically. The mind and heart must be cultivated, and diversity must be nourished in social relations that includes all sentient beings.
In contrast to the modern notion of frantic, ceaseless consumption, the Buddha said that tranquility is the most important prerequisite for self-cultivation and self-criticism, for the true understanding (prajna) of the self. It should be pointed out that understanding is different from intellectual knowledge, since it is filtered through both the heart and mind. Understanding helps the individual to recognize his or her limits and to be more humble. At the same time, it promotes loving kindness and compassion: the individual will be in a better position to witness the suffering of others and to help eliminate the cause of suffering. Of course, when one tackles the cause of suffering, particularly in an oppressive social system, one usually gets hurt. Here bhavana (mindfulness) facilitates the understanding of such danger s well as the forgiving of the oppressor. The oppressive system is hated and will be destroyed, but the oppressor will neither be despised or executed. If one is aware of one’s anger, than one can envelop it with mindfulness, thereby transforming it into compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh says that anger is like a closed flower; the flower will only bloom when deeply penetrated by the sunlight of bhavana. The constant radiation of compassion and understanding will eventually crack anger, enabling one to perceive its depth and roots. Likewise, bhavana will fully open the flower buds of greed, hatred and delusion.
Compassion and competition are not mutually exclusive. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “Any human activity carried out with a sense of responsibility, a sense of commitment, a sense of discipline, and a wider vision of consequence and connections, whether it be involved with religion, politics, business, law medicine, science, or technology – is constructive.” The emphasis is on the motivation for action. Given that motivation is deeply connected to worldview, a change in worldview, such as an understanding of interdependence or the universality of suffering, will lead to a change in motivation. As motivation shifts and the sense of responsibility and commitment are strengthened, broader changes can take place. For example, when a motivation for profit shifts to a sense of concern for the well-being, economic and spiritual, of the employees of a corporation, a cooperative relationship can start to replace a formerly exploitative one.
Similarly, competition is not a singularly negative force. In moderation and with a sense of direction it can be used to push us to become more generous and kind. His Holiness makes the distinction between two kinds of competition when he says that one kind of competition is only for individual glory and the other kind of competition includes an awareness that other people must also be fostered to succeed. Competition can be beneficial if it inspires us to be the best we can in order to serve others. Rituals and games are often built on competition but can serve also to strengthen the spirit. This discussion of competition and achievement parallels the discussion among Buddhists scholars about the purpose of nirvana. For some, spiritual enlightenment is a personal quest. For others, such as those in the Engaged Buddhist community, enlightenment is built on upon wisdom and compassion and is intrinsically connected with the well-being of all others. The Mahayana tradition is particularly emphatic that all beings must beings must be liberated before the bodhisattva can attain enlightenment. These discussions about the nature of competition and nirvan highlight how a seemingly minor difference in focus can shift the focus from an ego-centered attitude to a community-centered philosophy.
Instead of basing all interpersonal relations on social obligation or an economic calculation about what we can gain from another person, Buddhism uses the principles of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkah (equanimity) to be the guiding forces in interpersonal relations. These For Sublime Abodes (Brahma Vihara) are as follows:
1. Metta or loving kindness toward oneself an others. Yes, we all desire to be happy and have every right to do so. Nevertheless, through practicing the precepts and meditation, a different state of happiness can be achieved. It is a state of happiness where the mind is in harmony with oneself as well as with others. It renders assistance and benefits without ill will and without the malice of anger and competition. Once one is tranquil and happy, these qualities will be spread to others as well.
2. Karuna or compassion can only be cultivated when one recognizes the suffering of others and, consequently, is driven to bring that suffering to an end. Undoubtedly a rich person who does not care about the miserable conditions of the poor lacks this quality. It is terribly difficult fr him or her to develop into a better person.. All those who lock themselves up in ivory towers n the midst of a shockingly unjust world cannot be called compassionate. In Mahayana Buddhism, one vows to become a bodhisattva and forgoes one’s own nirvana until all sentient beings are free from suffering. In their words, one cannot remain indifferent; rather, one must endeavor to help others and alleviate or mitigate their suffering as much as one can. The essential characteristic of any healthy community/ society is its principle of inclusion. As we become more attuned to compassion as the instrumentality of social organization, we can embrace the community.
3. Mudita or sympathetic joy is a mental condition whereby one genuinely rejoices when others are happy or successful in a number of ways. One feels this without the flame of envy evne when a competitor gets ahead.
4. Upekkah or equanimity refers to the state in which the mind is cultivated until it becomes evenly balanced and neutral. Whether one faces success or failure, whether one is confronted with prosperity or adversity, one is not “moved” by it.