Over the past two decades I have had continuous contact with Buddhist communities, in both traditional cultures and the industrialized West. These experiences have made me keenly aware that industrial development affects not only our way of living but our worldview as well. In ancient cultures people derived their notions of reality largely through direct contact with the living world, or “biosphere,” whereas today our view of the world is more and more shaped by a man-made “technosphere” dominated by Western interest.
In the Buddha’s day, societies were more deeply rooted to their place in the natural world. Economies were more localized—in other words, of a scale that made explicit the human interdependence with other sentient beings and the rest of creation. Relations between people, and between culture and nature, were relatively unmediated. Direct observations and experiences of the natural world provided the basis for ethical decisions in individual lives.
The Buddha’s teachings and precepts were formulated within the context of societies shaped by these direct connections to community and to the living world. Buddhism is, in fact, about life. It is about the constantly changing cycles of the natural world: birth and death, joy and sorrow, the opening of a flower, the waxing and waning of the moon; it is about the impermanence and interdependence that characterize all that lives.
In the modern industrial world, on the other hand, complex technologies and large-scale social institutions have led to a fundamental separation between people, as well as between humans and the living world. Since our daily lives seem to depend largely on a man-made world—the economy, electric power, cars and highways, the medical system—it’s easy to believe we depend more on the technosphere than on the biosphere. As the scale of the economy grows, it also becomes increasingly difficult for us to know the effects of our actions on nature or on other people. In effect, our arms have been so lengthened that we no longer see what our hands are doing. Our situation thus exacerbates and furthers our ignorance, preventing us from acting out of compassion and wisdom.
Through “free trade” treaties and globalization, a single economic system is threatening to encompass the entire planet. At its core this system is based on a very narrow view of human needs and motivations: it is concerned almost exclusively with monetary transactions, and largely ignores such nonmaterial aspects of life as family and community, meaningful work or spiritual values. The focus on monetized social relations is echoed in the belief that people are motivated primarily by self-interest and endless material desires. Significantly, the Western economic system does not set about trying to temper our supposedly self-centered, acquisitive nature but rather to exploit it: it is believed that an “invisible hand” will transform the selfish actions of individuals into benefits for society as a whole.
The three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion are to some extent present in every human being, but cultural systems either encourage or discourage these traits. Today’s global consumer culture nurtures the three poisons on both an individual and a societal level. At the moment, $450 billion is spent annually on advertising worldwide, with the aim of convincing three-year-old children that they need things they never knew existed—like Coca-Cola and plastic Rambos with machine guns. Before the rise of consumerism, cultures existed in which this type of greed was virtually nonexistent. Thus we cannot conclude that the acquisitiveness and materialism of people trapped in the global economic system are inevitable products of human nature. Instead we need to recognize the near impossibility of uncovering our Buddhanatures in a global culture of consumerism and social atomization.
My experiences in Ladakh and in the Kingdom of Bhutan have also made me painfully aware of the connection between the global economy and ethnic conflict. In Ladakh, a Buddhist majority and a Muslim minority lived together for 600 years without a single recorded instance of group conflict. In Bhutan, a Hindu minority had coexisted peacefully with a slightly larger number of Buddhists for an equally long period. In both cultures, just fifteen years’ exposure to outside economic pressures resulted in ethnic violence that left many people dead. In these cases it was clearly not the differences between people that had led to conflict but the erosion of their economic power and identity. If globalization continues, the escalation of conflict and violence will be unimaginable; after all, globalization means the undermining of the livelihoods and cultural identities of the majority of the world’s people.
In the difficult situation globalization is creating, Buddhism’s philosophical foundation and emphasis on compassion put the followers of these profound teachings in a unique position to lead the way out. Not only can Buddhism provide the intellectual tools needed to oppose further globalization, but more importantly, it can help to illuminate a path towards a localization based on human-scale structures—a prerequisite for action rooted in wisdom and compassion. For how can we make wise judgments if the scale of the economy is so great that we cannot perceive the impact of our actions? How can we act out of compassion when the scale is so large that the chains of cause and effect are hidden, leading us to unwittingly contribute to the suffering of other sentient beings?
The challenge for Western Buddhists is to apply the Buddhist principles taught many centuries ago—in an age of localized social and economic interactions—to the highly complex and increasingly globalized world in which we now live.
It is vitally important that we distinguish between the Buddhist teachings of interdependence and corporate messages about the “interdependent world of trade.” We need to keep in mind that the interdependence in the global consumer culture is actually a dependence on global corporations, not an interdependence with the living world. In fact, the policies of economic globalization which promote mass urbanization and intense competition between peoples and nations are actually separating us further and further from one another and the Earth.
Buddhism can help us in this difficult situation by encouraging us to be compassionate and nonviolent with ourselves as well as others. Many of us avoid an honest examination of our lives for fear of exposing our contribution to global problems. However, once we realize that it is the complex global economy that is creating a disconnected society, psychological deprivation and environmental breakdown, Buddhism can help us to focus on the system and its structural violence, instead of condemning ourselves or other individuals within that system. The teachings can encourage an understanding of the many complex ways we affect others and our environment and can encourage empathy and a profound affirmation of life. Only by recognizing how we are all part of this system can we actively work together to disengage from these life-denying structures.
In smaller communities, people can see the effects of their actions and take responsibility for them. In more decentralized economies and political structures it is difficult to ignore the las of impermanence and interdependence. Being personally accountable to the community means being constantly in tune with its changing social and environmental dynamics. Since the consequences of any action are evident in a smaller community, decisions are more likely to be guided by wisdom and compassion. As difficult as it may sound, our choice as Buddhists seems clear: we need to help move society towards rebuilding smaller-scale social and economic structures which make possible a life based on Buddhist notions of interdependence and impermanence.