This article was originally published on Tricycle. It is reprinted here with permission.
Inequality in the United States has become greater than in France, Germany, or Japan, or in any other country that we think of as democratic and economically developed. The United States is a democracy in form, in the sense that we still have voting. But the reality is that we are better described as a plutocracy.
Plutocracy refers to a society that’s ruled or controlled—whether directly or indirectly—by people with great wealth or income. Wealthy individuals influence the government through legal and illegal methods such as lobbying, funding election campaigns, bribing, and dark money—all of which have become familiar to us today.
According to a landmark 2014 study by two professors, the preferences of typical Americans have no real influence on legislation. Instead, lawmakers listen to the policy demands of big business and wealthy individuals—who bankroll campaigns and know how to lobby.
We can’t understand why it is that we, as a civilization, are finding it so difficult to respond appropriately to the ecological crisis unless we also see this extraordinary resistance on the part of wealthy people and corporations, most of whom don’t want significant change because they benefit so much from the way things are now.
What does Buddhism have to say about plutocracy?
For me, there are three insights that stand out most of all. Number one: the economic system that we have now ends up rationalizing greed. For Buddhism, greed is the first of the three poisons (the other two are ill will and delusion). On an individual level in our society, greed (“never enough”) is generally perceived as a character defect. And yet, when we look at its institutionalization, the preoccupation with ever-higher profit, market share, and share prices is accepted as the motor of the economic system. But why is more-and-more always better if it can never be enough? If it can never bring satisfaction?
Another problem with our extractive economic system is that it tends to devalue the natural world. In Indigenous traditions there’s a sense of the sacredness of the Earth, which is our mother as well as our home. It is much more than just a resource, a means to an end of making money, something to be exploited.
The third insight about economics is found in a sutta in the Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon. It’s called the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, The Lion’s Roar Sutta in English.
If you don’t help people deal with their poverty, society is going to deteriorate and fall apart.
In this sutta, the Buddha tells the story of a king in a distant past, who receives advice from his monastic adviser: don’t let crime prevail, and give property to those who are in need. The king followed these teachings originally, but then began to rule according to his own ideas. He did not give property to the needy, so poverty became very widespread.
One man steals and is arrested. When the king asks him why he stole, the man says, “Well, I have nothing to live on. I have nothing to support my family with.” So the king gives him some property.
Exactly the same thing happens with another man. And when lots of other poor people hear about this, they decide to steal too, so they will also be given property. The king then realizes that he is in some trouble. If he continues to give property to people, then theft will continue to increase. So he decides, well, he has to get tough. And he starts punishing by cutting off the heads of people who steal.
Then people start to say: “Now let us get sharp swords made. And then we can take from anybody what we want, we’ll make an end to them, we’ll finish them off and cut off their heads.” Having procured some sharp swords, they launch murderous attacks on villages, towns, and cities, killing their victims by cutting off their heads, just like the king had done.
From not giving property to the needy, poverty became widespread. From the growth of poverty, stealing increased. And from the increase in theft, the use of weapons increased. And that increased murder and death.
Notice that this sutta is not a parable about controlling crime. It’s basically saying: if you don’t help people deal with their poverty, society is going to deteriorate and fall apart.
Socially engaged Buddhism requires us to develop much stronger sanghas and to find ways to work together politically. It requires us to overcome the individualism that American Buddhism often plugs into — the focus on my own practice, my own enlightenment, my own equanimity and serenity.
Despite some fanciful elements, this myth has important implications. Poverty is presented as a root cause of immoral behaviors such as theft, violence, and killing. Some might expect Buddhism to say that it’s important to just accept your karma if you’re poor. But that’s not what the Buddha is saying in this sutta. He’s talking about the connection between increasing poverty and society falling apart.
The problem begins when the king doesn’t give property to the needy, when the state neglects its responsibility. This influential sutta implies the solution to poverty, and related crimes, is not to punish severely, but to enable people to meet their basic needs.
Needless to say, this has important implications for us today, as the gap between rich and poor in this country—already enormous—continues to widen.
One of my favorite authors, Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018), said: “We live in capitalism, and its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
It seems clear that if Buddhist practitioners are going to have any impact in addressing such economic issues, it’s not something we can do individually, just by ourselves. Socially engaged Buddhism requires us to develop much stronger sanghas and to find ways to work together politically. It requires us to overcome the individualism that American Buddhism often plugs into — the focus on my own practice, my own enlightenment, my own equanimity and serenity. Individuals helping other individuals: that’s important, but it’s not enough. We must find ways to address the structural, institutional problems that we face.
To sum up, today it’s necessary for us to realize that, in addition to all the other issues that socially engaged Buddhism has been concerned about—anti-war, gender, racism, the ecological crisis—we should also take a really good look at our plutocracy. We need to examine the way our economic system works, the way that it’s structured by and for the very wealthy, and we need to understand how that interferes with responding appropriately to so many other social problems. This is what I think is missing from socially engaged Buddhism now, and what we need to start talking about together.