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Shambhala Sun | July 2009

An excerpt of this piece appears in our July 2009 "For 30 Years the Best of Buddhism in America: Commentary" retrospective. Here, we present the piece in its entirety.

To see all of the complete "Best of" commentaries, click here.

The Suffering System

by David R. Loy

Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, lived in ancient India at least 2400 years ago. Buddhism is an Iron Age religion. So how could it help us to understand and address modern issues such as the war on terrorism, economic globalization, and biotechnology?

What the Buddha did know about was human suffering: how it works, what causes it, and how to end it. But the word “suffering” is not a good translation of the Pali term dukkha. The point is that even those who are wealthy and healthy nonetheless experience a basic dissatisfaction that continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damned problem after another, is not accidental or coincidental. It is the very nature of the unawakened mind to be bothered about something, because at the core of our being there is a free-floating anxiety that has no particular object but can be plugged into any problematic situation.

In order to understand why that anxiety exists, we must relate dukkha to another crucial Buddhist term, anatta, or "non-self." Our basic frustration is due most of all to the fact that our sense of being a separate self, set apart from the world we are in, is an illusion. Another way to express this is that the ego-self is ungrounded, and we experience this ungroundedness as an uncomfortable emptiness or hole at the very core of our being. We feel this problem as a sense of lack, of inadequacy, of unreality, and in compensation we usually spend our lives trying to accomplish things that we think will make us more real.

But what does this have to do with social challenges? Doesn’t it imply that social problems are just projections of our own dissatisfaction? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Being social beings, we tend to group our sense of lack, even as we strive to compensate by creating collective senses of self.

In fact, many of our social problems can be traced back to this deluded sense of collective self, this “wego,” or group ego. It can be defined as one’s own race, class, gender, nation (the primary secular god of the modern world), religion, or some combination thereof. In each case, a collective identity is created by discriminating one’s own group from another. As in the personal ego, the “inside” is opposed to the other “outside,” and this makes conflict inevitable, not just because of competition with other groups, but because the socially constructed nature of group identity means that one’s own group can never feel secure enough. For example, our GNP is not big enough, our nation is not powerful (“secure”) enough, we are not technologically developed enough. And if these are instances of group-lack or group-dukkha, our GNP can never be big enough, our military can never be powerful enough, and we can never have enough technology. This means that trying to solve our economic, political, and ecological problems with more of the same is a deluded response.

Religion at its best encourages us to understand and subvert the destructive dualism between self and other, and between collective self and collective other. This kind of self-less universalism—or, better, nondiscrimination that does not place us over them—provides the basis for Buddhist social action. In some ways, however, our situation today is quite different from that of Shakyamuni Buddha’s. Today we have not only more powerful scientific technologies, but also much more powerful institutions.

The problem with institutions is that they tend to take on a life of their own as new types of wego. Consider, for example, how a big corporation works. To survive in a competitive market, it must adapt to the constraints built into that market. Even if the CEO of a multinational company wants to be socially responsible, he or she is limited by the expectations of stockholders and Wall Street analysts; if profits are threatened by his sensitivity to social concerns, he is likely to lose his job. Such corporations are new forms of impersonal, collective self, which are very good at preserving themselves and increasing their power, quite apart from the personal motivations of the individuals who serve them. This suggests that the response of a socially engaged Buddhism must become somewhat different too. We are challenged to find new ways to address the new forms of dukkha that institutions now create and reinforce.

There is another Buddhist principle that can help us explain this connection between dukkha and collective selves: the three roots of evil, also known as the three poisons. Instead of emphasizing the duality between good and evil, Buddhism distinguishes between wholesome and unwholesome (kusala/akusalamula) tendencies. The main sources of unwholesome behavior—the three roots of evil—are greed, ill will, and delusion. To end dukkha, these three need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, delusion into wisdom.

An important question for engaged Buddhism is: do the three roots of evil also work impersonally and structurally in modern institutions?

Institutionalized greed. In our economic system corporations are never profitable enough and people never consume enough. It's a circular process in which we all participate, whether as workers, employers, consumers, investors, or pensioners, but we usually have little or no personal sense of moral responsibility for what happens. Awareness has been diffused so completely that it is lost in the impersonal anonymity of the corporate economic system.

Contrary to what we are repeatedly told, however, such an economic system is neither natural nor inevitable. It is based on an historically-conditioned worldview that views the earth as resources, human beings as labor, and money as capital to be used for producing more capital. Everything else becomes a means to the goal of profit, which can have no end except more and more of the same thing. Greed has taken on a life of its own.

Institutionalized ill will. In Buddhist terms, much of the world’s suffering has been a result of our way of thinking about good and evil. The basic problem with a simplistic good-versus-evil way of understanding conflict is that, because it tends to preclude further thought, it keeps us from looking deeper. Once something has been identified as evil, there is no more need to explain it; it is time to focus on fighting against it.

Here one could point to the criminal justice system in the United States, which incarcerates a larger proportion of its population than any other nation. Why do we lock up so many people? One reason is that the incarcerated have become for us a kind of socially repressed “shadow” in the Jungian sense: Together, they represent what is wrong with modern U.S. society, so we vent our collective ill will on them by expelling and confining them out of sight. That way we do not need to think about them and what all those prisons imply about the kind of society we have become today.

However, the best example of institutionalized ill will is, of course, collective aggression: the institutionalization of militarism. After World War II, the U.S. did not de-militarize, but decided to maintain a permanent war-economy to fight communism. The collapse of communism at the end of the 1980's created a problem for the military-industrial complex, but now a never-ending "war against terrorism" has conveniently taken its place.

Institutionalized delusion. The most fundamental delusion, both individually and collectively, is our sense of a self/other duality—that “I” am inside and the rest of the world is outside. Nationalism is a powerful institutional version of such a group wego. For that matter, so is the basic species duality between Homo sapiens and the rest of the biosphere, which is why we feel free to use and abuse nature technologically, with almost no regard for the consequences for other species.

There are many aspects to institutionalized delusion. One of them is an extraordinary level of simple ignorance in the United States regarding basic history, geography, and science. Is there any other “advanced” nation where three times as many people believe in Satan and the virgin birth as in evolution? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the function of schools is no longer education, in any broad sense of the word, but job training and indoctrination into consumerist values, accompanied by patriotic myths of superior American virtues. Since the major media are profit-making institutions whose bottom-line is advertising revenue, their concern is to do what maximizes those profits: infotainment instead of news, and molding public opinion into a very narrow band of acceptable views. It is never in their own interest to question the grip of consumerism.

If we understand this third collective problem as institutionalized ignore-ance, it helps us to see that modern life in developed nations is organized in a way that works to conceal the dukkha it causes. The system inflicts dukkha on all of us, but most of all on people whom we do not see and therefore do not need to think about, like those incarcerated in prisons. Thanks to clever advertising and peer pressure, my son can learn to crave Nike shoes and Gap shirts without ever wondering about how they are made. I can satisfy my coffee and chocolate cravings without any awareness of the social conditions of the farmers who grow those commodities for me. In fact, without some serious effort on my part, I may never face the relationship between my addictions and the often destructive monocultural agriculture that makes them possible. My son and I are encouraged to live in a self-enclosed cocoon of hedonistic consumption.

This ignorance is also perpetuated on the production side. The stock market functions as a “black hole” of ethical responsibility: On one side are personal and institutional stockholders, who together create a generalized pressure for greater return on investment. On the other side are corporate CEOs, who are judged by how well they respond to that pressure, regardless of the social or ecological consequences. Investors can pour over the financial data provided by stock analysts without ever reflecting on the non-economic impact of the companies they invest in.

The cumulative effect of this ignorance is a collective wego largely unaware of, and indifferent to, what is going on in the rest of the world. This self-preoccupation would be more amusing if it were not complicit with so much social dukkha. The problem, quite simply, is that our consumerist lifestyle depends on a global web of unjust social relationships and destructive ecological impacts. The ultimate irony of it all is the uncomfortable fact that, no matter how much money one may have, consumerism is ultimately boring and dispiriting.

Realizing the nature of these three institutional poisons is just as spiritual and just as important as any personal realization that may result from Buddhist practice. In fact, any individual awakening we may have on our meditation cushions remains incomplete until it is supplemented by such a “social awakening.” In both cases, what is needed is a greater awareness that goes beyond the limitations of ego- and wego-consciousness. Usually we think of expanded consciousness in individual terms, but today we must penetrate through the veils of social delusion to attain greater understanding of dualistic social, economic, and ecological realities.

If the parallel between individual ego and collective wego holds, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the great social, economic and ecological crises of our day are, first and foremost, spiritual challenges, which therefore call for a response that is (at least in part) also spiritual.

What can Buddhism say about the solution to the these problems? It is not enough to stop with the first and second noble truths: social dukkha and its social causes. We need the third and fourth truths as well: an alternative vision of society, and a path to real-ize, make real, that vision.

There is something unclear, even intentionally vague, about the nature of nirvana. Does that also say something about the Buddhist solution to institutionalized dukkha? The early sutras usually define nirvana in negative terms, as the end of craving and dukkha. In a similar fashion, we can envision the solution to social dukkha as a society that does not institutionalize greed, ill will, or delusion. In their place, what might be called a dharmic society would have institutions encouraging their positive counterparts: generosity and compassion, grounded in a wisdom that recognizes our interconnectedness.

So far, so good, but that approach does not take us very far. Is a reformed capitalism consistent with a dharmic society, or do we need altogether different kinds of economic institutions? Can representative democracy be revitalized by stricter controls on campaigns and lobbying, or do we require a more participatory and decentralized political system? Can the United Nations be transformed into the kind of international organization the world needs, or does an emerging global community call for something different?

I do not think that Buddhism has the answers to these types of questions. That is not because Buddhism is lacking something it should have, for I do not see that any other religion or ideology has the answers, either. It is hardly surprising, then, that many of those most committed to social transformation are dubious about the role of religion. At this critical point in history, the challenge for a socially engaged Buddhism is not to persuade them that religion can play a positive role, but to show them. Furthermore, I think that we do not demonstrate this by trying to develop a distinct Buddhist social movement. Rather, Buddhism has a role to play within the burgeoning anti-globalization (better: “peace and social justice”) movement. Although it crystallized into self-consciousness during the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, and many representatives have been gathering at annual World Social Forums in Porto Allegre and Mumbai, this movement remains largely unstructured. That is its strength as well as its weakness. Like Buddhist social theory, it has so far been stronger on diagnosis than solutions.

Globalization involves many things—interacting economic, technological, cultural and political developments – but in its present form it is most of all about commodifying all the natural “resources” (including labor) in every corner of the globe, and converting all the world’s peoples to the gospel of produce/consume, in ways that are accelerating the ecological destruction of the biosphere. Since many aspects of this process are quite embarrassing to those who benefit from it, so not to be publicized, the World Bank and IMF promote it with the euphemistic phrase “poverty reduction,” despite the uncomfortable fact that it is actually aggravating the worldwide gap between rich and poor. As this suggests, such globalization serves the self-interest of economic and political elites (there is no significant difference between them), who when necessary do not hesitate to use police and military force to overcome resistance. In short, globalization as presently practiced can be seen as working to extend the institutionalized greed, ill will, and delusion already discussed.

The two principles of socially engaged Buddhism presented above – the connection between wego and social dukkha, and the three institutionalized “roots of evil” – add an important dimension to the anti-globalization critique. But what can Buddhism contribute to the development of solutions? I suggest three Buddhist implications:

The importance of a personal spiritual practice. The basis of Buddhist social praxis is the obvious need to work on oneself as well as on the social system. If we have not begun to transform our own greed, ill-will, and delusion, our efforts to address their institutionalized forms are likely to be useless, or worse. We may have some success in challenging the socio-political order, but that will not lead to an awakened society. Recent history provides us with many examples of revolutionary leaders, often well intended, who eventually reproduced the evils they fought against. In the end, one gang of thugs has been replaced by another.

From a spiritual perspective, there is nothing surprising about that. If I do not struggle with the greed inside myself, it is quite likely that, once in power, I too will be inclined to take advantage of the situation to serve my own interests. If I do not acknowledge the ill will in my own heart, I am likely to project my anger onto those who obstruct my purposes. If unaware that my own sense of duality is a dangerous delusion, I will understand the problem of social change as the need for me to dominate the sociopolitical order. Add a conviction of my good intentions, along with my superior understanding of the situation, and one has a recipe for social as well as personal disaster.

Commitment to non-violence. Struggling first of all with ourselves leads naturally to this second social principle. A non-violent approach is implied by our nonduality with all “others,” including those we find ourselves struggling against.

The Buddhist emphasis on impermanence implies another way to express that nonduality—the inseparability of means and ends. Peace is not only the goal, it must also be the way; or as Thich Nhat Hanh has put it, peace is every step. We ourselves must be the peace we want to create. A deeper understanding reduces our sense of duality from other people, including those in positions of power relative to us. Gandhi, for example, always treated the British authorities in India with respect. He never tried to dehumanize them, which is one reason why he was so successful. Buddhist emphasis on delusion provides an important guideline here: the nastier another person may be to us, the more he or she is acting out of delusion and dukkha. It makes no difference whether he or she has any inkling of this truth. For Buddhism such ignorance is never bliss. The basic problem is not evil, but delusion.

Gandhi reminds us of another good reason to avoid violence: non-violence is more likely to be effective. The struggle for social change is not so much a power struggle as a spiritual one, a clash of worldviews and moral visions. The successful non-violent revolutions against communism in Eastern Europe show us that elites fall when they lose the hearts and minds of the people.

Awakening together. A third basic principle, from a Buddhist perspective, is that our social engagement is not about sacrificing our own happiness to help unfortunate others who are suffering. That just reinforces a self-defeating (and self-exhausting) dualism between us and them. Rather, we join together to improve the situation for all of us. A recent email included the remark of an aboriginal woman that makes this point perfectly: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”

This point needs to be emphasized, because the bodhisattva path is often misunderstood. A bodhisattva does not sacrifice or delay his/her own awakening to help others. Rather, bodhisattvas are deepening and integrating their awakening by learning to live in a more selfless way. They devote themselves to relieving the world’s dukkha because spiritual liberation includes realizing that each of us is nondual with the world. This means that none of us can be fully awakened until everyone “else” is too. From a Buddhist perspective, then, the critical world situation means that today we need new types of bodhisattvas; or, more precisely, that bodhisattvas sometimes need to manifest their compassion in more socially engaged ways. “Bodhisattvas” means you and me.

Although these Buddhist principles encourage what Stephen Batchelor has called a “culture of awakening,” they do not amount to a distinct social program. Together, however, they add a more spiritual dimension to the peace and justice movement that has sprung up worldwide in recent years. Present social elites and power structures have shown themselves incapable of addressing the various crises that already threaten humanity and the future of the biosphere. It has become obvious that those elites are themselves a large part of the problem, and that the solutions will need to come from somewhere else. The global peace and justice movement has an increasingly important role to play, and a socially-awakened Buddhism can help to make that movement more spiritually aware.


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