Download this Document

Envisioning The Future
by. Robert Aitken Roshi

"Small is beautiful," E.F. Schumacher said, but it was not merely size that concerned him: "Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism," he said. "The Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character." (1)

Schumacher evokes the etymology of "civilisation" as the process of civilising, of becoming and making civil. Many neglect this ancient wisdom of words in their pursuit of acquisition and consumption, and those with some civility of mind find themselves caught in the dominant order by requirements of time and energy to feed their families. As the acquisitive system burgeons, its collapse is foreshadowed by epidemics, famine, war and the despoliation of the Earth and its forests, waters and air.

I envision a growing crisis across the world as managers and their multinational systems continue to deplete finite human and natural resources. Great corporations, underwritten by equally great financial institutions, flush away the human habitat and the habitat of thousands of other species far more ruthlessly and on a far greater scale than the gold miners who once hosed down mountains in California. International consortiums rule sovereign over all other political authority. Presidents and parliaments and the United Nations itself are delegated decision-making powers that simply carry out previously established agreements.

Citizens of goodwill everywhere despair of the political process. The old enthusiasm to turn out on election day has drastically waned. In the United States, commonly fewer than fifty percent of those eligible cast a ballot. It has become clear that political parties are ineffectual - whether Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal - and that practical alternatives must be found.

We can begin our task of developing such alternatives by meeting in informal groups within our larger Sanghas to examine politics and economics from a Buddhist perspective. It will be apparent that traditional teachings of interdependence bring into direct question the rationale of accumulating wealth and of governing by hierarchal authority. What then is to be done?

Something, certainly. Our practice of the Brahma Viharas - kindliness, compassion, goodwill and equanimity would be meaningless if it excluded people, animals and plants outside our formal Sangha. Nothing in the teachings justifies us as a cult that ignores the world. We are not survivalists. On the contrary, it is clear that we're in it together with all beings.

The time has surely come when we must speak out as Buddhists, with firm views of harmony as the Tao. I suggest that it is also time for us to take ourselves in hand. We ourselves can establish and engage in the very policies and programmes of social and ecological protection and respect that we have heretofore so futilely demanded from authorities. This would be engaged Buddhism, where the Sangha is not merely parallel to the forms of conventional society, and not merely metaphysical in its universality.

This greater Sangha is, moreover, not merely Buddhist. It is possible to identify an eclectic religious evolution that is already under way, one to which we can lend our energies. It can be traced to the beginning of this century, when Tolstoy, Rushkin, Thoreau and the New Testament fertilised the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian texts in the mind and life of M.K. Gandhi. The Southern Buddhist leaders AT. Ariyaratne and Sulak Sivaraksa and their followers in Sri Lanka and Thailand have adapted Gandhi's "Independence for the Masses" to their own national needs and established programs of self-help and community self-reliance that are regenerative cells of fulfilling life within their materialist societies. (2)

Mahayana has lagged behind these developments in South and Southeast Asia. Whereas in the past, a few Far Eastern monks like Gyogi Bosatsu devoted themselves to good works, another few like Hakuin Zenji raised their voices to the lords of their provinces about the poverty of the common people, and still others in Korea and China organised peasant rebellions, we do not today see widespread movements in traditional Mahayana countries akin to the village self-help programs of Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka, or similar empowerment networks established by Sivaraksa in Thailand.

"Self-help" is an inadequate translation of swaraj, the term Gandhi used to designate his program of personal and village independence. He was a great social thinker who identified profound human imperatives and natural social potentials. He discerned how significant changes arise from people themselves, rather than from efforts on the part of governments to fine-tune the system.

South Africa and Eastern Europe are two modern examples of change from the bottom up. Perceptions shift, the old notions cannot hold - and down comes the state and its ideology. Similar changes are brewing despite repressions in Central America. In the United States, the economy appears to be holding up by force of habit and inertia in the face of unimaginable debt, while city governments break down and thousands of families sleep in makeshift shelters.

Not without protest. In the United States, the tireless voices of Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Brown and other cogent dissidents remind us and our legislators and judges that our so-called civilisation is using up the world. Such spokespeople for conservation, social justice and peace help to organise opposition to benighted powers and their policies, and thus divert the most outrageous programs to less flagrant alternatives.

Like Ariyaratne and Sivaraksa in their social contexts, we as Western Buddhists would also modify the activist role in our own contexts to reflect our culture as well as our spiritual heritage. But surely the Dhammic fundamentals would remain. Right Action is part of the Eightfold Path that begins and ends with Right Meditation. Formal practice would also involve study, reciting the ancient texts together, Dhamma discussion, religious festivals, and sharing for mutual support. (3)

In our workaday lives, practice would be less formal, and could include farming and protecting forests. In the United States, some of our leading intellectuals cultivate the ground. The distinguished poet W.S. Merwin has through his own labour created an aboretum of native Hawaiian plants at his home on Maui. He is thus restoring an important aspect of Hawaiian culture, in gentle opposition to the monocultures of pineapple, sugar and macadamia nut trees around him. Another progressive intellectual, Wendell Berry, author of some thirty books of poetry, essays and fiction, is also a small farmer. Still another reformative intellectual and prominent essayist, Wes Jackson, conducts a successful institute for small farmers. Networking is an important future of Jackson's teaching. He follows the Amish adage that at least seven co-operating families must live near each other in order for their small individual farms to succeed. (4)

All such enterprise takes hard work and character practice. The two go together. Character, Schumacher says, "is formed primarily by a man's work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses ourselves and equally our products." (5) With dignity and freedom we can collaborate, labour together, on small farms and in co-operatives of all kinds - savings and loan societies, social agencies, clinics, galleries, theatres, markets and schools - forming networks of decent and dignified modes of life alongside and even within the frames of conventional power. I visualise our humane network having more and more appeal as the power structure continues to fall apart.

This collaboration in networks of mutual aid would follow from our experience of paticca-samuppada, depend origination or co-dependent arising. All beings arise in systems of biological affinity, whether or not they are even alive in a narrow sense. We are born in a world in which all things nurture us. As we mature in our understanding of the Dhamma, we take responsibility for paticca-samuppada and continually divert our infantile expectations of not being nurtured to an adult responsibility for nurturing others.

Buddhadassa Bhikku says: The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees and soil. Our bodily parts function as a cooperative. When we realise that the world is a mutual interdependent, cooperative enterprise, that human beings are all mutual friends in the process of birth, old age, suffering and death, then we can build a noble, even heavenly environment. If our lives are not based in this truth, then we shall all perish. (6)

Returning to this original track is the path of individuation that transforms childish self-centredness to mature views and conduct. With careful, constant discipline on the Eight-Fold Noble Path of the Dhamma, greed becomes dana, exploitation becomes networking. The root-brain of the newborn becomes the compassionate, religious mind of the elder. Outwardly the elder does not differ from other members; her or his needs for food, clothing, shelter, medicine, sleep and affection are the same as for anyone else. But the smile is startlingly generous.

It is a smile that rises from the Buddha's own experience. Paticca-samuppada is not just a theory, but the profound realisation that I arise with all beings, and all beings arise with me. I suffer with all beings; all beings suffer with me. The path to this fulfilment is long, sometimes hard and involves restraint and disengagement from ordinary concerns. It is a path that advances over plateaus on its way, and it is important not to camp too long on any one plateau. It is not yet your true home.

Dhammic society begins and prevails with individuals walking this path of compassionate understanding, discerning the noble option at each moment and allowing the other options to drop away. It is a society that looks familiar, with cash registers and merchandise, firefighters and police, theatres and festivals, but the inner flavour is completely different. Like a Chinese restaurant in Madras, the decor is familiar but the curry is surprising.

In the United States of America, the notion of compassion as the touchstone of conduct and livelihood is discouraged by the culture. Yet here and there one can find Catholic Workers feeding the poor, religious builders creating housing for the homeless, traditional people returning to their old ways of agriculture.

Small is the watchword. Huge is ugly, as James Hillman has pointed out. (7) Huge welfare goes awry, huge housing projects become slums worse than the ones they replace, huge environmental organisations compromise with their own principles in order to survive, huge sovereignty movements fall apart with internal dissension. The point is that huge anything collapses, including governments, banks, multi-national corporations and the global economy itself - because all things collapse. Small can be fluid, ready to change.

The problem is that the huge might not collapse until it brings
everything else down with it. Time may not be on the side of the small. Our awareness of this unprecedented danger impels us to take stock and do what we can with our vision of a Dhammic society.

The traditional Sangha serves as a model for enterprise in this vision. A like-minded group of five can be a Sangha. It can grow to a modest size, split into autonomous groups and then network. As autonomous lay Buddhist associations, these little communities will not be Sanghas in the classical sense, but will be inheritors of the name and of many of the original intentions. They will also be inheritors of the Base Community movements in Latin America and the Philippines - Catholic networks that are inspired by traditional religion and also by l9th century anarchism. (8) Catholic Base Communities serve primarily as worship groups, study groups, moral support societies, and nuclei for social action. They can also form the staff and support structure of small enterprises. The Catholic Base Community is grounded in Bible study and discussions. In these meetings, one realises for oneself that God is an ally of those who would liberate the poor and oppressed. This is Liberation Theology of the heart and gut. It is an internal transformation that releases one's power to labor intimately with others to do God's work (9)

The Buddhist counterpart of Bible study would be the contemplation and realisation of paticca-samuppada, of the unity of such intellectual opposites as the one and the many found in Zen practice, and the interdependence presented in the sacred texts, such as the Hua-yen ching (10). Without a literal God as an ally, one is thrown back on one's own resources to find the original track, and there one finds the ever shifting universe with its recurrent metaphors of interbeing to be the constant ally.

There are other lessons from Liberation Theology. We learn that we need not quit our jobs to form autonomous lay Sanghas. Most Base Communities in Latin America and the Philippines are simply groups that have weekly meetings. In Buddhist countries, co-workers in the same institution can come together for mutual aid and religious practice. In the largest American corporations, such as IBM, there will surely be a number of Buddhists who could form similar groups. Or we can organise co-housing arrangements that provide the sharing of home maintenance, child-care and transportation that can free up individuals for their turns at meditation, study and social action. Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapters might consider how the Base Community design and ideal could help to define and enhance their purposes and programmes.

Of course, the collapse if any is not going to happen tomorrow. We must not underestimate the staying power of capitalism. Moreover, the complex, dynamic process of networking cannot abruptly be put into place. In studying Mondragon, the prototype of large, dynamic cooperative enterprise in the three Basque counties of northern Spain, William and Kathleen Whyte countered more than a hundred worker co-operatives and supporting organisations with l9,500 workers in l988. These are small, even tiny enterprises, linked by very little more than simple goodwill and a profound sense of the common good. Together they form a vast complex of banking, industry and education which evolved slowly, if steadily from a single class for technical training set up in l943. (11) We must begin with our own training classes. Mondragon is worth our study, as are the worker-owned industries closer to home - for example, the plywood companies in the Pacific Northwest. In l972, Carl Bellas studied 21 such companies whose inner structures consisted of motivated committees devoted to the many aspects of production, and whose managers were responsible to a general assembly. (12)

In the course of our training classes, it is also essential that we examine the mechanism of the dominant economy. Usury and its engines have built our civilisation. The word "usury" has an old meaning and a modern one. In the spirit of the old meaning of usury - lending money at interest - the banks of the world, large and small, have provided a way for masses of people for many generations across the world to own homes and to operate farms and businesses. In the spirit of the modern meaning of usury, however - the lending of money at excessive interest - a number of these banks have become gigantic, ultimately enabling corporations almost as huge to squeeze small farmers from their lands, small shopkeepers from their stores and to burden homeowners with car and appliance payments and lifetimes mortgages.

For over 1800 years, the Catholic Church had a clear and consistent doctrine on the sin of usury in the old sense of simply lending money at interest. Nearly 30 official church documents were published over the centuries to condemn it. Out of the other side of the Vatican, however, came an unspoken tolerance for usury so long as it was practised by Jews. The Church blossomed as the Medici family of bankers underwrote the Renaissance, but at the same time, pogroms were all but sanctioned. The moral integrity of the Church was compromised. Finally, early in the l9th century, this kind of hypocrisy was abandoned - too late in some ways, for the seeds of the Holocaust were planted. Today the Pope apologises to the Jews, and even the Vatican has its bank. (13) Usury in both old and modern implications is standard operating procedure in contemporary world culture.

Like the Medicis, however, modern bankers can be philanthropic. In almost every city in the United States, bankers and their institutions are active in support of museums, symphony orchestras, clinics and schools. Banks have almost the same social function as traditional Asian temples: looking after the poor and promoting cultural activities. This is genuine beneficence, and it is also very good public relations.

In the subdivisions of some American cities, such as the Westwood suburb of Los Angeles, the banks even look like temples. They are indeed the temples of our socio-economic system. The banker's manner is friendly yet his interest in us is, on the bottom line, limited to the interest he extracts from us.

One of the banks on Hawai'i has the motto, "We say 'Yes' to you", meaning "We are eager for your money". Their motto is sung interminably on the radio and TV, and when it appears in newspapers and magazines we find ourselves humming the tune. Similar light-weight yet insidious persuasions are used with third-world governments for the construction of freeways and hydro-electric dams and administrative skyscrapers.

Governments and developers in the Third World are, in fact, the dupes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund:

It is important to note that IMF programmes are not designed to increase the welfare of the population. They are designed to bring the external payments account not balance...The IMF is the ultimate guardian of the interests of capitalists and bankers doing international business. (14)

These are observations of the economist Kari Polyani Levitt, quoted as the epigraph of a study entitled Banking on Poverty. The editor of this work concludes that policies of the IMF and the World Bank "make severe intrusions upon the sovereign responsibilities of many governments of the Third World. These policies not only often entail major additional cuts in the living standards of the poorest sectors of Third World societies, but are also unlikely to produce the economic results claimed on their behalf." (15)

Grand apartment buildings along the Bay of Bombay show that the First World with its wealth and leisure is alive and well among the prosperous classes of the old Third World. The Third World with its poverty and disease flares up in cities and farms of the old First World. In The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Noam Chomsky writes:

In l971, Nixon dismantled the Bretton Woods system, thereby deregulating currencies. (16) That, and a number of other changes, tremendously expanded the amount of unregulated capital in the world and accelerated what's called the globalization of the economy. That's a fancy way of saying that you can export jobs to high-repression, low-wage areas. (17)

Factories in South Central Los Angeles moved to Eastern Europe, Mexico and Indonesia, attracting workers from farms. Meantime, victims in South Central Los Angeles and other depressed areas of the United States, including desolate rural towns, turn in large numbers to crime and drugs to relieve their seemingly hopeless poverty. One million American citizens are currently in prison, with another two million or so on parole or probation. More than half of these have been convicted of drug-related offences. (18) It's going to get worse. Just as the citizens of Germany elected Hitler Chancellor in l932, opening the door to fascism quite voluntarily, so the citizens of the United States have elected a Congress that seems bent on creating a permanent underclass, with prison expansion to provide much of its housing.

Is there no hope? If big banks, multi-national corporations and co-operating governments maintain their strategy to keep the few prosperous and the many in poverty, then where can small farmers and shopkeepers and managers of clinics and social agencies turn to for the money they need to start up their enterprises and to meet emergencies? In the United States, government aid to small businesses and farms, like grants to clinics and social agencies, is being cut back. Such aid is meagre or non-existent in other parts of the world, with notable exceptions in northern Europe.

Revolving credit associations called hui in China, kye in Korea and tanamoshi in Japan have for generations down to the present provided start-up money for farmers and small businessmen, as well as short-term loans for weddings, funerals and tuition. In Siam there are rice banks and buffalo banks designed for sharing resources and production among the working poor. (19) The Grameen banks of Bangladesh are established for the poor by the poor. Shares are very tiny amounts, amounting to the equivalent of just a few dollars, but in quantity they are adequate for loans at very low interest to farmers and shopkeepers. (20)

Similar traditional co-operatives exist in most other cultures. Such associations are made up of like-minded relatives, friends, neighbours, co-workers or alumnae. Arrangements for borrowing and repayment among these associations differ, even within the particular cultures. (21) In the United States, co-operatives have been set up outside the system, using scrip and labor credits, most notably, Ithaca Hours, involving 1,200 enterprises. (22) The basic currency in the latter arrangement is equal to $10.00, considered to be the hourly wage. It is guaranteed by the promise of work by members of the system.

We can utilise such models and develop our own projects to fit our particular requirements and circumstances. We can stand on our own feet and help one another in systems that are designed to serve the many, rather than to aggrandise the wealth of the few.

Again, small is beautiful. Whereas large can be beautiful too, if it is a network of autonomous units, monolithic structures are problematic even when fuelled by religious idealism. Islamic economists theorise about a national banking system that functions by investment rather than by a system of interest. However, they point out that such a structure can only work in a country where laws forbid lending at interest, and where administrators follow up violations with prosecution. (23) So, for those of us who do not dwell in certain Islamic countries which seek to take the Koran literally, such as Pakistan and some of the Gulf States, the macrocosmic concept of interest-free banking is probably not practical.

Of course, revolving credit association have problems, as do all societies of human beings. There are defaults, but peer pressure among friends and relatives keep these to a minimum. The discipline of Dhamma practice would further minimise such problems in a Buddhist loan society. The meetings could be structured with ritual and Dhamma talks to remind the members that they are practising the virtues of the Buddha Dhamma and bringing paticca-samuppada into play in their workaday lives. They are practising trust, for all beings are the Buddha, as Hakuin Zenji and countless other teachers remind us. (24) Surely only serious emergencies would occasion a delinquency, and contingency planning could allow for such situations.

Dhamma practice could also play a role in the small Buddhist farm or business enterprise. In the l970s, under the influence of Buddhists, the Honest Business movement arose in San Fransisco. This was a network of small shops whose proprietors and assistants met from time to time to encourage one another. Their policy was to serve the public, and to accept enough in return from their sales to support themselves, sustain their enterprises and pay the rent. Their account books were on the sales counters, open to their customers. (25)

The movement itself did not survive, though progressive businesses here and there continue the practice of opening their account books to customers. (26) Apparently the Honest Business network was not well-enough established to endure the change in culture from the New Age of the l970s to the pervasive greed of the l980s. I suspect there was not a critical mass in the total number of shops involved, and many of them might have been on their commercial appeal. Perhaps religious commitment was not particularly well-rooted. Perhaps also there was not the urgency for alternatives that might be felt in the Third World - an urgency that will surely be felt in all worlds as the dominant system continues to use up natural resources. (27) In any case, we can probably learn from the Honest Business movement, and avoid its mistakes. In establishing small enterprises - including clinics and social agencies and their networks - it is again important not to be content with a plateau. The ordinary entrepreneur, motivated by the need to support a family and plan for tuition and retirement, scrutinises every option and searches out every niche for possible gain. The manager of an Honest Business must be equally diligent, albeit motivated by service as well as for the family.

Those organising to lobby for political and economic reforms must also be diligent in following through. The Base Communities throughout the archipelago that forms the Philippines brought down the despot Ferdinand Marcos, but the new society wasn't ready to fly, and was put down at once. The plateau was not the peak, and euphoria gave way to feelings of betrayal. However, you can be sure that many of these little communities are still intact and in place. Their members have learnt from their immediate history, and continue to struggle for justice.

A. J. Muste, the great Quaker organiser of the mid-20th century, is said to have remarked, "There is no way to peace; peace is the way." For our purposes, I would reword his pronouncement, "there is no way to a just society; our just societies are the way". Moreover, there is no plateau to rest upon, only the inner rest we feel in our work and in our formal practice.

This inner rest is so important. In the short history of the United States, there are many accounts of utopian societies. Almost all of them are gone - some of them lasted only a few weeks. Looking closely, I think we can find that many of them fell apart because they were never firmly established as religious communities. They were content to organise before they were truly organised.

Families fall apart almost as readily as intentional communities these days, and Dhamma practice can play a role in the household as well as in the Sangha. As Sulak Sivaraksa has said, "When even one member of the household meditates, the entire family benefits." (28) Competition is channelled into the development of talents and skills, greed is channelled into the satisfaction of fulfilment in work. New things and new technology are used appropriately, and are not allowed to divert time and energy from the path of individuation and compassion.

New things and new technology are very seductive. When I was a little boy, I lived for a time with my grandparents. These were the days before refrigerators, and we were too far from the city to obtain ice. So, under an oak tree outside the kitchen door, we had a cooler - a kind of cupboard made mostly of screen, covered with burlap, and watered with a clever drip arrangement from the top. Evaporation from the burlap cover kept the contents of the cupboard cool, the milk fresh, and the butter firm. We didn't need a refrigerator. I can only assume that the reason my grandparents ultimately purchased one in later years was because they were persuaded by advertisements and by their friends.

We too can have coolers just outside the kitchen door, or on the apartment verandah, and save the money the refrigerator would cost to help pay for the education of our children. Like our ancestors, we too can walk, or take public transport. We can come together like the Amish and build houses for one another. We can join with our friends and offer rites of passage to sons and daughters in their phase of experimenting and testing the limits of convention.

Our ancestors planned for their descendants, otherwise we might not be here. Our small lay Buddhist societies can provide a structure for Dhamma practice, as well as precedent and flexible structures for our descendants to practice the Dhamma in turn, for the next ten thousand years.

In formally sustaining the Dhamma, we can also practice sustainable agriculture, sustainable tree farming, sustainable enterprise of all kinds. Our ancestors sustain us, we sustain our descendants. Our family members and fellow-workers nurture us, and we nurture them - even as dana was circulated in ancient times.

Circulating the gift, the Buddhist monk traditionally offers the Dhamma, as we offer him food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But he is also a bachelor. Most of us cannot be itinerant mendicants. Yet as one who has left home, the monk challenges us to leave home as well - without leaving home. There are two meanings of "home" here. One could be the home of the family; the other may involve the family, but is also the inner place of peace and rest, where devotion to the Buddha way of selflessness and affection is paramount. The monks and their system of dana are, in fact, excellent metaphorical models for us. The gift is circulated, enhancing character and dignity with each round. Festivals to celebrate the rounds bring joy to the children and satisfaction to the elders.

I don't suggest that the practice of circulating the gift will be all sweetness and light. The practice would also involve dealing with mean-spirited imperatives, in oneself and in others. The Buddha and his elder leaders made entries in their code of vinaya after instances of conduct that were viewed as inappropriate. Whether the Buddhist Base Community is simply a gathering of like-minded followers of the Dhamma that meets for mutual support and study, whether it has organised to lobby for justice, or whether it conducts a business, manages a small farm or operates a clinic, the guidelines must be clear. General agreements about what constitutes generous conduct and procedure will be valuable as references. Then, as seems appropriate, compassionate kinds of censure for departing from those standards could gradually be set into place. Guidelines should be set for conducting meetings, for carrying out the work and for networking. There must be teaching, ritual and sharing. All this comes with trial and error, with precedent as a guide but not a dictator.

Good will and perseverance can prevail. The rounds of circulating the gift are as long as ten thousand years, as brief as a moment. Each meeting of the little Sangha can be a renewal of practice; each work day a renewal of practice, each encounter, each thought-flash. At each step of the way we remember that people and indeed the many beings of the world are more important than goods.

More By This Teacher

Buy the Book

Back to Index


© Copyright Efini Design 98, 99, 2000 and 2001. All Rights Reserved.