Buddhism Through The Capitalist Filter.

The arrival of Buddhism in the West, (and the travelling of Westerners in the East), has set in motion a cascade of interaction that is unpredictable nature and chaotic in practice.  Buddhism has had to undergo two distinct orientation exercises; one with the religion of Christianity – the prevailing religion of the West – and the economic imperative of Capitalist endeavour, which began in Italyin the 14th century.  Even a cursory familiarisation of the Buddhist teachings in any of their respective manifestations, will notice that the Buddha, his monks and spiritual descendents were not motivated for the profit of money, but rather inspired by the effects of suffering as experienced by ordinary humanity.  The requirement to find an answer to suffering involved a tremendous amount of self-effort, or ‘work’, but a work that attracted the wages of spiritual insight rather than those of material wealth.  It is remarkable to survey the spiritual teachings of the world and realise that ‘money’ was never part of the original interaction between sage and student.  Indeed, even modern Christianity with its modern embracing of the so-called ‘work ethic’ obscures the reality that Jesus Christ was thoroughly opposed to both the accumulating of money and the requirement for humanity to partake in soul-destroying physical labour.  The Buddha, in a similar vein, purposefully left his life of physical pleasure and psychological stimulation, so that he may divert his attention toward the essence of his mind, rather than be pre-occupied with the trivia of sensory gratification.  His spiritual journey was taken outside of the bounds of conventional life – the forest rather than the town – and whilst exploring the many facets of Indian yoga discovered a middle path that led to his full emancipation from suffering and complete enlightenment.  A manifestation of this enlightenment is the hundreds of Buddhist Suttas, or scriptures that provide written evidence of the depth of his understanding.  These teachings were passed on for around a hundred years by an oral tradition before eventually being written down.  The male members of the monastic community are termed ‘bhikkhu’, (the females ‘bhikkhuni’), a term that literally means ‘beggar’.  These spiritual seekers renounced money, (indeed, the ‘vinaya’, or rules of the monastic community forbids the handling of money), instead living a life of existing on waste food and drink donated by the lay community.  The Buddha taught openly and in response to spiritual need, never asking for or demanding payment of any kind.  The laity provides food, drink and material (for robes) because it is spiritually right to do so.  Although throughout the world, this original anti-material attitude can still be found practiced by Buddhists, it is also true that wherever Capitalism has spread, it has taken the temptation to ‘exploit’ with it, and a product of this imperative has been the distortion of the ‘not for money’ aspect of Buddhist in some of its manifestations.

For many, modern living carries the necessity for mutual exploitation of one another either within, or in the case of crime, outside a moderating legal system.  Profit has to exist for the system to function, and with this profit, there must be inequality.  The Buddha lived in a society that privileged his caste and his social rank – his father was a chief or king (raja).  Social inequality was as prominent in ancientIndiaas it is today across the world.  As a spiritual statement, the Buddha gave up his life of luxury, his wife and his child.  He turned his back on a life of sensual pleasure and headed into the wilderness to rid his mind of attachment.  He identified the mental aspects of greed, hatred and delusion as the three taints that caused human suffering and ensured the continuous round of re-birth.  What he demanded from his followers was a deep sense of commitment, honesty and insight.  Monetary capability had no part in the spiritual process of the acquisition of the enlightened state in the early teachings, and this attitude is maintained in the teachings od developed Buddhism without exception.  There is no Buddhist sutta that teaches that ‘money’ should be given by a practitioner to the Buddha before spiritual instruction is imparted.  No such teaching exists in a wisdom tradition that demands an ‘exact’ attention to the details of spiritual instruction.  As all Buddhist traditions claim a direct lineage back to the historical Buddha, it is interesting to note the intrusion of the Capitalist imperative into certain Buddhist schools and the social institutions they inspire or support.  This phenomenon may be viewed as an active ‘contamination’ of the original Buddhist teachings, and a sullying of the pristine intention of the Buddha.  It is a complex situation which includes wealthy (and not so wealthy) patrons donating money as ‘dana’, or Buddhist charity – which is a legitimate Buddhist practice.  Although instruction should be ‘free’ at the point of dispense, many Buddhist organisations and institutions demand a payment of money before instruction can be given.  A practitioner with no access to money is not instructed – this is completely opposite to the Buddhist teaching.  Money – the product of the world of delusion – does not and can purchase enlightenment.  The exchange of money reduces the conveying of the Buddha’s wisdom to a mere act of commerce – as if the contemporary Buddhist teacher ‘owns’ the Buddha’s wisdom, and is selling it to the highest bidder.  This interaction amounts to a distortion of Buddhist teachings and attracts the kind of karma associated with the deliberate misrepresenting the Buddha’s wisdom.  Sometimes a very wealthy patron financially sponsors the physical existence and running costs of a temple (or other Buddhist centre) and in so doing maintains the principle of free instruction at the point of contact.  In this instance the interaction between Buddhist teacher and student is not reduced to a commercial activity, even though the temple or centre might exist within a Capitalist economic structure.  Giving wealth to improve and maintain the practice of Buddhist teaching is very much in accordance with generosity and compassion, providing the teaching of the Dharma is not mediated through an exchange of money.

However, considering that the Buddhist suttas belong to no single person – and by implication belong to the whole of humanity – it is interesting to observe that it is a habit of culture to create publications (as books and journals, etc) and sell them on the open market.  The Buddha’s teachings, when interpreted and presented by a single person (within the covers of a book), are presumed to be the property of the owner of the copyright (related to the work in question), even though the essence of the work is not the intellectual property of the author concerned.  This assumption of ‘ownership’ of the Buddhist teachings is the distinguishing factor of the Buddha’s teachings as manifest within Capitalist society.  The purchaser of the book may own the book, but does not possess the intellectual content – by purchasing the book, the owner simply pays to possess a ‘private’ copy of the work in question – but the work in question always remains the property of some one else (the author), regardless of the ‘price’ of the book, and can never be owned by the purchaser, regardless of the amount of money that changes hands.  In this way knowledge is passed around society, and its essential ownership maintained and ensured.  The intellectual content of the book is the ‘private property’ of the author.  Capitalist society is premised upon the ownership of private property, be it a book or a building.  Those who own property socially and economically dominate those who do not.  A private space that is used for the practice of Buddhist meditation has within it the legal potential to ‘sell’ the Buddhist teaches as if they were part and parcel of the private property itself.  The associated dominance of ownership allows for any thing to be exploited for profit – including spiritual teachings.  The fact that through the procurement of spiritual teachings for money – that is, in this instance, through Buddhist teachings treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold – an individual might, through the study of the acquired teachings, derive a certain developmental benefit, does not detract from the fact of the perversion (of the context) of the original teachings themselves.  Indeed, in such a distorted context any derived benefit must be viewed as purely coincidental and the product of the good and honest intentions of the purchaser.  The established Buddhist tradition teaches according to need.  The numerous Buddhist suttas often convey the same message in many different a diverse formats.  These formats arise due to the difference in mentality and ability of those being taught – the Buddha, through his wisdom, carefully provided a relevant context for his teachings to the differing people who came and asked for instruction.  Teachings were never given in a written format – without explanation or specific guidance – but were always verbally manifest.  Later, after these teachings had been written down, the teachings themselves would be studied and guidance offered by qualified teachers.  Buddhism, in whatever guise it may be encountered, is essentially a ‘wisdom’ tradition.  The teachings on their own – encountered with no contextual instruction or guidance – become so many dry words.  In the Chinese Ch’an tradition, for instance, often scripture learning is dispensed with completely, and the inherent wisdom conveyed from master to student without the reliance upon words and letters.  Purchasing the written teachings without guidance creates a form of limited private property – the purchaser owns the book, but does not own the content – and by-passes the traditional ‘teacher-student’ interaction.

In the case of meditation centres that ‘sell’ the Buddha-Dharma, an interesting sequence of events unfolds.  As soon as Buddhist teachings become a commodity to be bought and sold as the whim dictates, automatically an economic barrier descends that effectively separates those who can afford the teachings, from those who can not.  This contravenes the most basic of Buddhist tenants, namely that anyone can attempt the Buddhist path which is essentially an anti-material endeavour.  Indeed, within the Buddha’s lifetime, those who followed his path as monks and nuns were effectively penniless not only as monastics, but prior to entering the order were from the lowest (and poorest) social strata.  If the Buddha had insisted upon the economic imperative as a means to ‘filter’ those who wished to be his followers, it is doubtful that Buddhism as a distinct philosophical path would have survived, as the people who achieved the highest states and conveyed the purest teachings would not have been selected at all.  In the modern context access to money secures entry to meditation centres and to the horded teaches they possess.  Notice here, however, that the possession of the correct amount of ‘access’ money only allows for a brief association with the teachings themselves, it does not, and it can not assure any developmental benefit as a consequence of the economic interaction.  In this context, compassion is replaced by commercial considerations, and the spiritual well-being of the student relegated to an ‘ability to pay’.  This situation requires Buddhism as a distinct social and cultural entity to succumb to the forces of the economic imperative and adopt an attitude of commerciality, whereby its practitioners occupy a surreal and apparent spiritual dimension that is predicated solely upon the ability to sell itself.  The Buddha originally left the world as dictated by wealth and lived a natural existence free of the need to own or accumulate wealth – which may be juxtaposed with the modern meditation centre which although apparently offering an alternative to the material world of wealth and profit, is in fact a product of that very world.  The modern meditation centre exists not because it is a product of ascetics who have left society, or who possess independence means, but rather as a deliberate exercise in profit making, but one which hides behind a thin veneer of spirituality.  This charade is so intense that many who participate within it are convinced that the ‘lie’ is the ‘truth’, and that the modern mythology they perpetuate is in accordance with the Buddha’s life example and the teachings he produced.  Of course, this an ideal breeding ground for the development of Buddhist ‘cults’, who, upon the assumption that they ‘own’ the Buddhist teaches that they have purchased, build a structure of access to those teachings based upon a flawed ideology coupled with a need to further exploit through the acquisition of profit.  Many of these cults refer to themselves as ‘Western’, and whilst wearing saffron robes, shaving the head and accepting Sanskrit names, nevertheless, propagate the insanity that Asian culture has no relevancy to Buddhism or the West!  Invariably, these cults abound with accusations of misconduct, ranging from the financial to the sexual, thus perpetuating the greed, hatred and delusion, the presence of which the Buddhist teaching explicitly warns against.  This distortion is really nothing more than the profit motive taken to its absurd bounds.  Misrepresentation is only limited by a lack of imagination.  Indeed, one well-known Western movement, having suffered for years through the sexual misconduct of its founder, has recently ‘re-branded’ itself so as to make its ‘product’ more desirable to the consumer.

The intellectual by-product of Buddhism being reduced to an economic commodity is one that believes it is thinking deep and profound thoughts about the ‘need’ for Buddhism to adapt to its Western surroundings, as if it where a new plant or unusual breed of animal.  This kind of pseudo-intellectualism has no grounding in reason and is the culmination of one misunderstanding heaped upon another.  It assesses ‘a priori’ that the Capitalist system of exploitation is correct and necessary and that philosophies that have developed in different psycho-physical climates should lose their cultural distinctiveness by conforming to the rigours of market forces.  This kind of argument suggests that any perceived incoming and ‘foreign’ entity lacks the cultural markers that make it appear logical and exploitable.  The answer is to reduce it to a non-descript commodity that might sell due to its exotic origination – like an ornate table or distinctive chair.  This, in part, arises due to the assumption that that which is different is a threat to stability.  It is a threat culturally, (Buddhism threatens the assumed superiority of Christianity in the West), and due to its ‘other worldly’ attitude, a threat to the relentless search for profit.  Buddhism as a distinct entity from a different place is usurped by those who believe themselves to be the upholders of its tradition.  In the process its inherent structures are dismantled and re-defined in such away so that its originating uniqueness is never seen again.  Buddhism is destroyed by the very forces that would preserve it in a new climate.  Obviously, a Buddhist path such distorted can no longer perform its spiritually enlightening function and becomes merely another aspect of oriental paraphernalia – an usual object to be collected and horded.  All difference must be attacked into oblivion.  This includes those who would follow and preserve the original form of Buddhism essentially unchanged.  Asians are viewed as ‘clannish’, and ‘unwilling’ to mix, and their Buddhism ‘illogical’, ‘barbaric’ and the product of a ‘backward’ culture.  It must be transformed through its encounter with the West into the exact opposite of eurocentrically defined ‘civility’.  Of course, this kind of social force is exactly the force that helped carry Western imperialism to spread to all sides of the world and is racist in nature.  Racism is historically associated with the spread of Capitalist free market forces.  So strong is its association that even in a country such as theUK– where racism is considered incorrect – it still abounds as an active social force, and is routinely expressed in such newspapers as The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, not to mention the medium of satellite television and the internet, etc.  This implicit and explicit attitude of intolerance assumes that the perceived ‘other’ is an inferior threat to the survival of Western culture, when in fact the real reason is because philosophies such as Buddhism offer a clear alternative to the economic exploitation of the masses.  As Buddhism strengthens the mind, the forces of exploitation are kept at bay and the structures of the philosophy kept intact.  Even within exploitative societies Buddhism can retain its inherent identity and preserve its intended enlightening function.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this brilliant writing that is a humble, modest challenge to contemporary societal and economic perspective. I have shared it with my internet (Twitter) associates that may or may not be interested in reading it. All we can do is try …. namaste.


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