The Recession – “Suffering & the Way out of Suffering”?

Our network was born in the shadow of nuclear extinction as the British Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Subsequently we changed our name to acknowledge a broader engagement, and the focus shifted to the deepening ecological crisis. The time has surely now come to bring social justice on to the front seat also, through the development and communication of a Buddhist economics and politics.

The starting point for any Buddhist-inspired social enquiry is the self, and its futile endeavour (dukkha) to evade the inherent impermanence and insubstantiality of life by acquisitiveness, aggressiveness and overall delusion. Over the last two hundred years or more the immense increase in global productive capacity has made acquisitiveness dominant and all pervasive. It ranges from individual consumerism (driven by existential lack rather than material need) to the fanatical ideology of the free market , sustained by “neoliberal” politics, which attempts to reduce all values to profit and loss, and which can be sustained only by endless material growth.

This is the institutionalised acquisitiveness of an entire culture in which we are all entrapped. It was most strikingly analysed by a great 19th century humanist called Karl Marx, and the greatest tragedy of the century which followed was the disastrous failure to replace it with a just, equitable and truly democratic commonwealth. As Jeremy Seabrook has observed, socialism was for over a hundred years “the great sustaining myth” of millions of downtrodden men and women throughout the world.

The Recession as a historic wake-up call ?

The present recession is powered by the most extreme form of greed – borrowing (and lending) far beyond one’s means, ranging from credit cards through sub prime mortgages to hedge funds. It will undoubtedly cause widespread misery and hardship. Nonetheless, could it be that it has struck at a providential time ? Could it be that future historians may see it as a wake-up call to begin the shift to a radically different and ecologically sustainable economics, just when climate change and the energy crisis (in particular) were beginning to bite?

Older readers may recall the “Buddhist Economics” proposed by Ernst Schumacher, one of the founders of the green movement. This was a human scale economics of modest consumption with (less well known) a spiritual grounding. Since then there has developed a widespread and variegated green “alternative” movement incorporating ecological sustainability, social justice, individual well-being and a New Economics embracing these ideas (see the New Economics Foundation’s A Green New Deal publication). Such principles are highly congruent with Dharma and provide Buddhists with a congenial field in which to put their shoulders to the wheel and also, I suggest, to make some distinctive contributions.

In the first place, the manifold experience of recession provides a favourable opportunity to show what good sense the Dharma makes, on both the personal, lifestyle level and the social, global level. To be able the better to engage people’s interest is important, not only on the ancient ground of existential, personal liberation but also because the Dharma can be a valuable catalyst in the radical interpersonal and social changes noted below. Could this be our opportunity at long last to reach beyond a tiny minority of (predominantly) middle class professionals interested in Asian cultures?

Interpersonal inner work

Secondly, and most important, we need to get the idea of a “culture of awakening” on to the agenda. We must seek every opportunity urgently to explain the bottom line – that it is the historic human appetite for greed and violence that has so largely created our present world. Unless personal change is on the agenda the structural shift towards a just, sustainable and democratic commonwealth will go the way of all such previous radical visions – reverting to the ideology of either the market or the centralised collectivist state.

Ecological sustainability requires a “steady state” economy of modest consumption and qualitative development in place of quantitative growth. This implies self discipline and as much regulation and control as may be needful. It is not only that centralised bureaucracies ultimately fail. It is that given our concern for social justice and peace we shall need to work for decentralised, grassroots democracy extended into global confederation. “Economics as if people mattered” requires a market (and a state) managed by people, instead of a people managed and disciplined by market and state. This will depend on a socially skilled critical mass of inner-directed, “steady state” men and women.

The foregoing translates into a movement of interpersonal inner work supporting the movement for institutional and structural change. Interpersonal skills (for example, in small group process) are essential, but will be misdirected if individually or collectively ego-driven. This is why the inner work of meditation and multi-faceted mindfulness is an essential accompaniment, bearing in mind the Dalai Lama’s dictum that “Buddhism is not a religion; it is a science of mind.” This enables us to work together with the transpersonal psychology movement and other inner path spiritualities.

There are many promising signs that an interpersonal inner work movement is underway. The Climate Camp decision-making process was significant – at least at the interpersonal level. In NEB itself there are many interested in experiential learning, participatory group process and non-violent communication, drawing on Joanna Macy and other pioneers. And our Chagford 2009 NEB gathering will aim to develop our Dharmically informed communication skills. Again, our work has already begun in venues such as Buddhafield. And on both sides of the Atlantic the importance of mindfulness training in many different fields of endeavour is being increasingly recognised.

Buddhism as a radical conservatism

A third perspective provided by Buddhism in finding a way forward is that of radical conservatism (a term first coined, I believe, by Ajahn Buddhadasa). It is conservative in its recognition of the profound karmic persistence of acquisitiveness, authoritarianism and the like – even after social revolution. But Buddhism is also the most radical political perspective of all in that it proclaims the possibility of a revolution which goes down to the very roots of the human condition. And so, although on the one hand we do need the kind of radical, long-term perspective sketched in above, we no less need a patient recognition of the realities facing us.

For example, we shall still need the acquisitive drive of the market, albeit socialised and regulated the better to serve society, even if we might prefer an economy of co-operatives, not-for-profit businesses and the like. And we need to critique the anarchist wing of the alternative movement, with its radical ideology founded on the belief that it is nothing more than the coercive power of the state that has made human history so tragic (ideology I take to mean “a collectively held body of delusive ideas”). All this could provide a useful entry point for Dharmic debate…