Huffington Post has just published an article by John Stanley and David Loy. It sets out a Buddhist response to global events such as the economic crisis and climate change. Significantly, it connects the possibilities of personal enlightenment with the the health of the ecosystem.
A traditional Buddhist belief is that self-realization is possible only on the biological basis of a human body. So Sakya Trizin points out that global ecological collapse could also eliminate the possibility of enlightenment from the Earth. Understood more metaphorically, the collapse of human civilization, which has become a very real possibility, might leave only a few humans desperately struggling to survive on an impoverished planet, preoccupied indefinitely with finding their next meal and unable to focus on anything else.
The article also goes beyond a lot of Buddhist critiques in that it doesn’t only blame abstract qualities “greed”, “ignorance”, “anger” for social ills but instead lays the blame on particular institutions, and social forces, for example the media and the rampant inequality that characterises US society.
An important part of genuine education is realizing that many of the things we think are natural and inevitable (and therefore should accept) are in fact conditioned (and therefore can be changed). The world doesn’t need to be the way it is; there are other possibilities. The present role of the media is to foreclose most of those possibilities by confining public awareness and discussion within narrow limits. Our society is now dominated by a power elite composed of governments and large corporations which include the major media outlets. People move easily from each of these institutions to the other because there is very little difference in their worldview or goals — primarily economic expansion. As John Dewey put it a long time ago, politics remains “the shadow cast by big business over society.” The role of the media in this unholy alliance is to “normalize” this situation, so that we accept it and continue to perform our required roles, especially the frenzied production and compulsive consumption necessary to keep the economy growing.
So, just as Buddhist teachings hold that personal transformation is possible (the third noble truth), the authors argue that the same may be applied at a social level. In this way Buddhism provides an antidote to the sort of fatalism that has gripped much of the public imagination during the neoliberal era, summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative) doctrine.
I think it’s true to say that there are different Buddhist approaches to social change. A lot of Buddhist “social” critique, I would say, essentially argues that social change should be pursued through individual transformations — i.e. working towards individual enlightenment will plant the seeds of dhamma that will lead to a better society. What is not precisely explained is the mechanism by which this transformation will take place. The above article, by contrast, is more genuinely sociological because it calls for activist transformation of social institutions, and indeed the entire social system. I wonder if, despite the language of hungry ghosts and so on, this sort of sociological critique is a particularly “western” mode of Buddhist social engagement?