In his 1942 essay, ”The Yogi and the Commissar,” Arthur Koestler outlined two extreme responses to the exigencies of communal life. One was the belief that social improvement could only occur through collective activity to alter the ownership of the means of production. The other was the belief that change could only occur through individual spiritual transformation. Each generation has seen these twinned Hegelian opposites reappear in new guises, viz., the beatniks and young Trotskyites of the 1950s, or the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s. Today, this same polarization is re-emerging in response to the introduction of the Dharma to the West. Some see both Buddhism and secularized mindfulness as, for better or worse, a field of individual spiritual transformation, while others critique both Buddhism and mindfulness for insufficient social engagement. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear echoes of the original Mahayana critique of so-called “Hinayana” Buddhism for its alleged exclusive concern for individual liberation.
It is Western Buddhism’s peculiar provenance that its early practitioners were drawn largely from politically liberal social strata: beatniks, hippies, peace corp volunteers, psychedelic enthusiasts, and disaffected intellectuals — I count myself among them — people who were alienated from the dominant culture’s emphasis on consumerism and conformity, its empty professions of piety, its worship of celebrity and success, its aggressive evangelization of American Exceptionalism, its insufficiently explored dark history of African slavery and native American genocide, and its profound unease with socially marginalized groups and unwillingness to share its largess with them. It’s therefore not at all surprising that American Dharma has become an ideological battleground between those wishing to keep it arms length from politics, and those who take the Bodhisattva ideal as a mandate for political activism. Politically active Buddhists almost always continue to pursue their pre-Buddhist Leftist predilections under the Buddhist flag, providing, in some ways, a mirror image to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity’s embrace of right-wing policies.
This debate over Dharma and politics has emerged with renewed energy as mindfulness practices have made their way into corporate America and the military, and the rhetoric of mindfulness has been adopted by wealthy elites. The Left, reflexively suspicious of business, the military, and the rich, is concerned that mindfulness’s emphases on equanimity, acceptance and non-grasping may make it a tool for pacifying disadvantaged classes, encouraging them not to stand up and fight for what is rightfully theirs. It worries that secular mindfulness, divorced from a larger ethical frame, may help soldiers become better killers. It worries that, accommodating to the American gospel of success, it may become just another vehicle for promoting professional and material advancement. It worries about a Dharma that ”professionalizes” and becomes another way to ”earn a living.” It worries about a Dharma becoming just another brick in the capitalist superstructure.
In ”The Yogi and the Commissar,” Koestler understood that the thesis of the commissar and the antithesis of the yogi required some new kind of synthesis, some Buddhist or Hegelian middle way. On the other hand, he found the prospect of such a synthesis elusive:
”It is easy to say that all that is wanted is a synthesis — the synthesis between saint and revolutionary; but so far this has never been achieved. What has been achieved are various motley forms of compromise — the blurred intermediary bands of the spectrum — compromise, but not synthesis. Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.”
In dialectical debates of this kind, truth never abides in one corner. Every voice must be attended to, and hopefully people are not speaking past each other. In fact, one hopes for dialogue rather than debate. That’s the best away to struggle towards a new synthesis.
That having been said, I have my own particular point of view as someone who is deeply interested in the future of both Buddhism and of secular mindfulness, but who is neither reflexively anti-business nor anti-military. My general point of view is politically liberal, but not politically radical. I don’t belong to a marginalized or disadvantaged social group, although I am sympathetic to their claims. My family has historically benefited from the American experience. My father’s family emigrated to America from Romania in the first decade of the twentieth century to escape the rise of Romanian proto-fascism. My father’s father was a simple cobbler who died in a work-related accident. My father never graduated from high school. He enrolled in the army before the onset of the second world war and trained as a flight navigator in the 8th air force. When his plane was shot down over the North Sea, he endured fourteen months in a Nazi POW camp. After the war, he went to work driving a truck and then working in a small factory making vertical window blinds. With a loan from a more successful brother, he eventually bought the blind factory, working long hours personally involved in sales, manufacturing, installation and repair for his product. My mother worked too, supplementing his income as a secretary in the New York City school system. My parents never owned their own home until they retired and used the proceeds from the sale of the business to help finance a small condo in Florida. My mother passed away that year and never got to enjoy it.
My father didn’t cheat or exploit people in his business. He made a superior product that people wanted and sold it at a fair price. He was good towards his employees. When one of his employees occasionally wound up in jail after a particularly rough night on the town, he was the one who showed up to bail him out. My parents made it possible for my sister and I go to college and further ourselves. The American dream has been good for us, but I understand it has not been good for everyone. I also understand that there is some element to my own family’s success that may have been purchased at the expense of other people’s misfortune. The New York State Scholarship, the National Defense Education Loan, and subsidized state university education that enabled me to go to college were not available to everyone, and the monies spent on them might have helped someone else eat or get medical attention. The large corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank and Union Carbide that bought my father’s vertical blinds for their international headquarters and helped put food on our table were not entirely benign enterprises. Just one look at the Bhopal tragedy attests to that. I get that. I only recite my background so that you can understand both my appreciation for and my ambivalence about the American experience.
I’ve also been someone who’s been politically active for liberal causes my entire life. As a high school student I was involved in the movement to desegregate the New York City public schools, and as a college student, I organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in my college town of Binghamton, NY. As an adult, I’ve demonstrated against the Iraq War and for changes in environmental policy. I helped organize a chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, am an active supporter of Buddhist Global Relief, assist in my sangha’s soup kitchen, and helped write my town’s climate action plan. I say all this to clarify my politics — I’m an old fashioned, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the kind Marxists deride as being hopelessly petit-bourgeois.
Having clarified where I’m coming from, allow me to move on to what I regard as several key points in the debate about the politics of mindfulness.
First, Buddhism, on its own, does not possess a social theory, anymore than it has a macroeconomic theory or a theory of particle physics. While Buddhism is anti-greed and anti-hatred, it does not prescribe any specific remedies for social inequity or injustice. While the Bodhisattva ideal requires us to hear the cries of the suffering and not turn away, it does not supply a social recipe for how to go about ending that suffering. While the Buddha taught non-killing, he did not advise kings to abolish armies. While the Buddha accepted women and members of all castes into his sangha, he did not advocate for the ending of the caste system. In saying this, I am not saying we should emulate the Buddha in this regard. I am only pointing out the historic disconnect between Buddhism and social theory. We can invent something new, a twenty-first century Buddhist social theory, but we cannot tell from historic Buddhism itself what the specific content of that social theory ought to be. It will have to be something altogether new.
Second, there is no reason why a new Buddhist social theory needs be dogmatically anti-Capitalist. I can imagine it being neutral about capitalist economic organization, per se. While the Buddha eschewed personal ownership of more than a robe, a begging bowl, and a razor, he never advised kings to divest themselves of their treasuries. Some people think that global poverty will only end when capitalism ends, but it’s possible to make the case that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other form of economic organization. Socialism in its various forms failed China, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union, doing little to end poverty and alleviate human misery — in fact, in many ways only tragically adding to the level of human misery though terror, collectivization, famine, slaughter, cultural revolution, and the Gulag. Some may argue that these governments were not really socialist, and that one cannot judge socialism by their successes and failures, but then it is up to critics of capitalism to provide a counter-example, any example, of a non-capitalist society that has significantly ameliorated poverty within its borders, and even more so, has done so without endless accompanying terror and oppression. China and India are only now making great strides at lifting their masses out of poverty after having adopting capitalist methods. It’s true that the mixed-economy social democracies of Western Europe have been successful at both producing wealth and limiting the growth of income inequality — better in many ways than our more gung-ho, free-enterprise, individualistic United States. Here in the U.S. there are arguments to be made for finding a better mix of planning/redistribution and the free market. There are reasons to think that adjusting taxation formulae, reinvesting in infrastructure development, providing universal day care and pre-kindergarten schooling, improving models of and access to lifetime education, providing for adequate nutrition and universal health care, and reforming the justice and prison systems will help to reduce the current level of income inequality. But this is only an expansion of the ends and goals of the old-style welfare state, not a revolution. On the other hand, there is zero evidence that radically unwinding capitalism itself — whatever that means — would lead to human betterment. Capitalism is far from heaven on Earth, but we could do a lot worse.
There are some who argue that corporations, by their very nature, despoil the environment and exploit workers and third-world countries in their endless pursuit of shareholders’s interests. One can point to innumerable disturbing examples of this, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. The problem with corporations is that they’re insufficiently constrained by both law and a countervailing moral ethos. There’s no broad social consensus about how much profit is justifiable and how much is obscene. There’s no extant social ethos compelling corporations to acknowledge their stakeholders and not just their shareholders. Corporations can be morally constrained by the larger culture they exist within, but that kind of transformation is primarily an ethical and spiritual matter, and not an economic one. Socially important transformations of consciousness occur all the time — witness the changing world cultural consensus on matters like slavery and women’s suffrage over the past two centuries, or the rapidly changing consensus on gay marriage. Marxists believe these changes are always economically determined by changing economic relations. While economics undoubtedly plays an important role in determining consciousness, reality is always a two-way street, with ethics and economics mutually informing each other. We require a moral, social, economic, and political co-evolution — and moral evolution is something Buddhism has a great deal to say about.
In recent weeks I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a secularized version of the Dharma to employees of a large corporation. I accept no money for this service, since it’s my belief that the Dharma should always be offered freely. I also do not approve of the product this particular corporation is most famous for. I do, however, appreciate the employees who come to learn what I have to offer. They are neither evil minions nor exploited workers. They are people bedeviled by the normal existential issues of life and death, grief and loss, pain and illness, guilt and shame, success and failure that we all struggle with. These are exigencies that owe little to capitalism, per se. They are the same everywhere. The Buddha, after all, taught that life is suffering, not that capitalism is suffering. I’m happy to pass on what limited tools I can to make a difference in their suffering. It’s heartening when something ”clicks” and a member of the group ”gets” what mindfulness is about — not adding to suffering through cognitive elaboration, touching the vital ebb and flow of life itself, becoming fully present, non-grasping and letting be, and finding all mental states ultimately workable. I have no idea whether or not this will make them better ”employees” or further their company’s ”mission.” I am unconcerned with that, and they’re there for their own myriad personal reasons. They come on their own free time and of their own free will. It’s not a obligation placed on them by the corporation. I’m concerned that they have the opportunity to improve their emotional intelligence and find ways to more fully embrace their humanity. If I wanted to change their corporation’s policies, I would write a letter to its president, or vote for change at a shareholder’s meeting, or organize a boycott of their products. Teaching the Dharma is an entirely different endeavor, and one that I believe transcends politics.
In recent months I read concerns about aspects of the Dharma being appropriated by economic elites. I’ve read criticisms of the Dalai Lama for speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, or Jon Kabat-Zinn for speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Some people react as if this is a kind of betrayal, as if the Dharma was solely the possession of the dispossessed. This, in fact, has always been the way the Dharma has percolated through societies. The Buddha advised kings and Brahmans. It was King Ashoka who spread the Dharma throughout India. In China and Japan, Buddhism was adopted by elites before it disseminated throughout the broader culture. Seminal figures like the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dogen were members of their respective aristocratic classes by birth, and often taught and advised other members of their class.
Billionaires need help with the existential difficulties of life every bit as much as you or I. You may not believe this, but they do. The very rich, while more cognitively satisfied with their lives’s achievements, are not any happier on a day to day, moment to moment basis than you or I. The Dharma is for them too, just as the Buddha taught that even the gods needed the Dharma. Will their exposure to Buddhist ideas make them more socially responsible? That’s a lot to ask from a brief encounter with the Dharma. Years of deep and committed practice would probably be transformative, but not a mere dabbling acquaintanceship. On the other hand, for some CEOs, mindfulness can serve as a gateway to serious practice. It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but wealth is not of necessity a barrier to enlightenment. And then there are always individual cases like the Aetna CEO who learned meditation to deal with his chromic pain and wound up raising the salaries of his lowest paid employees.
Lastly, let me briefly turn to the issue of mindfulness in the military. Mindfulness has been introduced to the military as a means of preventing the degradation of attention caused by stress, and perhaps preventing or reducing the post-combat sequelae of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide. These are all desirable outcomes. No one wants soldiers, armed to the teeth, making thoughtless decisions in the midst of heated emotion and diminished attentional clarity. No one wants young men who only wanted to be of service to their country or to escape the jobless poverty of their communities to suffer the life-long consequences of intense stress — burdens they then impose on their families and on the communities they return to. None of this training is designed to disengage soldiers from their consciences and turn them into more efficient killing machines. The question of whether recent military deployments have been either moral or wise were questions addressed, well or poorly, by men in Washington, DC, and not in the field. The Dharma belongs everywhere, in the boardroom and in the foxhole, and not just in the zendo.
None of this is meant to be summarily dismissive of critic’s concerns. We need to do more to make our sanghas inclusive and welcoming to marginalized communities. We need to attend to the ethical issues involved as secularized versions of the Dharma move into the hospital, the workplace and the military. We need to keep the flame of Dharma transmitted to us by our Asian teachers fully lit, and in constant dialogue with its secularized cousins, as we make slow and careful adaptations to the needs of twenty-first century Westerners. We need to think through what a socially engaged Buddhism looks like as we try to develop Buddhist social theory. Let’s be thoughtful about the process, and let’s not turn this into an us against them enterprise, whoever ”they” may be. Businessmen, the wealthy, and soldiers are not our enemy. Greed, hatred, and delusion are. And let’s not saddle our new Western Buddhism with outmoded Nineteenth Century political and economic dichotomies that do no real service to the complexities of modern life and offer no real assistance to those most in need.
19 Replies to “The Politics of Mindfulness”
Thanks for this, Seth. I agree, very well said, all around.
I think that to the extent that there is a characteristically Buddhist politics, it is an anti-politics — privileging the yogi over the commissar, in your terms. What is the best life for a king? Give the kingdom away and become a monk. I don’t know if you have read my article on gifts and poverty in ōšÄntideva but you might find it food for thought in this regard.
Thanks, Amod for both your kind comments and your interesting link on Shantideva! I enjoyed reading it.
This is a very balanced take. I appreciate your desire to offer Buddhist teachings to everyone, regardless of their political persuasion or economic standing.
That said, I am suspicious of any attempt to put politics to the side, as though we could somehow choose not to “get out hands dirty,” so to speak. Politics has become a dirty word in America. Even politicians insult their opponents by saying “he/she is just playing politics.” How bizarre! It seems to me that our nation will never live up to its democratic ideals if we continue to look down on politics as something dirty, as something beneath the nobler pursuits of spirituality or culture-making. Too many intelligent people are turning their backs on politics, which only leads to the further decay of our governmental institutions. Politics, as I understand it, is simply our attempt to compose a common world together. If we can’t engage in this work of composition in a heartfelt way, society will continue to fall to pieces.
I think you are right that the Buddhist tradition doesn’t come with a social or political theory pre-installed. I also agree that Buddhist teachings and practices, to the extent that they transform consciousness by increasing our capacity for compassion, can have a positive influence on politics–that is, on our attempt to compose a common world together. So the influence can move in the direction you say; but it also moves the other way: there are socioeconomic conditions that make Buddhist practice possible. Mindfulness meditation has not caught on quite as fast among America’s many poor and homeless as it has among its elite. Last year’s “Wisdom 2.0” conference provided a real life example of how these sorts of socioeconomic disparities play out. Google’s mindfulness coach was presenting when a group of activists interrupted (lead by a graduate of CIIS’ anthropology department) to protest the gentrification that the tech boom has caused in San Francisco. The response was to ignore the very real reasons for the protest and to instead use the interruption as an opportunity to use meditation to find peace and quiet again. See the whole thing unfold for yourself here: http://www.tricycle.com/blog/protesters-crash-google-talk-corporate-mindfulness-wisdom-20-conference
In closing, I would recommend a book by the late Robert Bellah called “Religion in Human Evolution” (2011). He discusses the Axial Age religions and marks some interesting differences between the Jewish prophetic tradition and the tradition that emerged in the Buddha’s wake. In short, the Jewish prophets were denouncers of a corrupt society trying to change it, while the Buddha and his followers were renouncers seeking another way. It seems to me that, in our late modern American and increasingly global context, we need, if not a grand Hegelian synthesis, then a makeshift bricolage of the Jewish and Buddhist approaches.
Welcome, Matthew, to The Existential Buddhist. It’s good to have you visit here! I agree wholeheartedly with you that we all must be willing to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty in politics. It’s where the action is. One of things I love about Zen is that it says after one has been to the mountaintop, one must descend back into the fray. Enlightenment that is not expressed as enlightened activity in the relative world is not enlightenment. Zen masters like Hakuin had a good deal to say about unfair taxation of the peasantry by the feudal Japanese lords, and wasn’t shy about venturing his opinions on such matters.
I have seen the Wisdom 2.0 clip you provided the link for above, but my reaction to it is different from yours, perhaps. Firstly, I wonder how any of us would respond to our presentation being rudely disrupted, and if any of us would have the presence of mind and equanimity to turn it into a teachable moment. Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes we get flummoxed. Were any of the presenters personally responsible for the role Google plays in gentrification? If not, why were they targeted? It seems to me that the demonstrators had picked an inappropriate target for their disruption, and that the people they were disrupting were powerless to address their concerns. They may have worked for Google, but were they the people who made economic decisions for it? The presenters could have scrapped their presentation to turn the hour into a forum for the discussion of gentrification, but why should they have? Why not get back as soon as possible to the reason they and the audience were actually there? Finally, I think the issues related to gentrification are complex, and that cities are living organisms which are always in flux and transition as people move in and out of neighborhoods for a whole variety of reasons, and the issue of how to address the needs of people who are priced out of their old neighborhoods are also complex and not east to resolve. There should be a place to discuss and address these issues, but a mindfulness workshop is not the place. At least I don’t think so.
The issue of why mindfulness has caught on with elites faster than with the poor is complex as well. I agree that the Buddhist world and the mindfulness movement need to do more to engage disadvantaged and marginalized segments of society. When Jon Kabat-Zinn started the stress reduction clinic at U-Mass, he also started, very shortly thereafter, an inner city Hispanic clinic in downtown Worcester, and set up a mindfulness program in the Massachusetts prison system. The folks who started the mindfulness movement were interested in how to do this from the very beginning. The governor of Massachusetts, unfortunately shut down the prison program when it became a political football in the election. The electorate was in no mood to spend public dollars teaching yoga to convicts. I’m sure that since then, many folks have rushed into the movement with considerably less interest in going where the money isn’t, but the founders of the mindfulness movement were sincere in their wish to see mindfulness reach wherever suffering was the most severe — that’s why it started with hospitals and prisons, and not boardrooms.
Some Buddhist movements, like Soka Gakkai, are more successful in reaching out to the poor than the Tibetan, vipassana, and Zen communities have been. There are a great many people pondering this question of inclusiveness and outreach, some more successfully than others, some more genuinely than others. Many, however, have not even begun, sitting comfortably within their own private gated communities. Why do the Jehovah’s Witnesses draw more of the non-white community than the liberal-minded Unitarian Universalists? One can probably point to a thousand and one factors that make certain places seem welcoming to the poor or people of color or people who are differently gendered than others, and all of these need to be thought through and addressed.
Finally, I enjoyed reading about your comparison of the Jewish prophetic tradition and the Buddhist tradition. You are right — the Jewish prophets decried society’s fall from faithfulness to God believing in the possibility of a society of the covenant which fulfilled God’s prophecies. The Buddha thought life itself was suffering, and that there was no such thing as a social arrangement that brought happiness, unlike Aristotle, say, who believed a city’s laws could be written to maximize virtue and thus well-being. The Indian Buddhists believed in a transcendent escape from the world of suffering, a nirvana that was not all that different, in some ways from the Christian escape into the Kingdom of Heaven. SIno-Japanese Buddhism turned this emphasis on transcendence on its head, declaring that the world of samsara and nirvana were identical, and that there was no other world, just this, which was already a perfect expression of things as they were, and always in flux, decaying and regenerating over and over again. Enlightenment was immanent in the material, biological and social world. There wasn’t any need to rescue people from the conditions of life. If they practiced they could be reborn into better conditions the next time around, and if they really practiced, they could become Enlightened. Christians believed in creation, the Fall and redemption; Buddhism posited an always extent multiverse that went through cycles of expansion and collapse and was always, in some meaningful sense perfect as it was if one could only see it, and thus did not need fixing. Zen takes a third, more paradoxical view that, to paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, “everything is already perfect as it is, and could stand some improvement.” That’s a view I personally can get on board with. Things can be perfect at the level of the Absolute, but need fixing at the level of the Relative.
Would a synthesis of the Judaic prophetic tradition and the Buddhist tradition be worthwhile? I don’t know. The prophetic tradition has never much appealed to me. I think a Buddhism that believes being a Bodhisattva means really addressing the real suffering of people in the world is good enough. We don’t need to denounce the world. We just have to keep on pushing the stone uphill.
Thanks for your reply, Seth.
If there is a more effective way to voice opposition to the effects of the tech boom on SF residents being priced out of their homes by greedy landlords, I’m not sure what it is. The city government has done nothing but encourage the process by giving tax breaks to the big tech companies to move their offices downtown. Wisdom 2.0 is not simply a mindfulness conference, it is mindfulness conference by and for big corporate executives and managers. What the protesters did was rude, yes. But political dissent always is! They are giving voice to a voiceless population that has been pushed from their homes by the wealthy folks on stage and in the audience. I think bringing awareness to the issue is worth the 30 second interruption.
There is often a caricature of Buddhism that it is withdrawn from worldly concerns. I appreciate your examples of how that is just not the case, now or in the past.
My own spiritual path has brought me from an over-zealous atheist scientism as a teenager, through Alan Watt’s California Buddhism (ironically while I still lived in Florida), to esoteric/hermetic Christianity (which took hold when I moved to San Francisco and delved deeper into our own Western spiritual traditions) to finally rest (for now!) in a pluralist appreciation for the mystical and social justice implications of several of the world’s faiths. I feel most at home in an eclectic mix of Buddhism and Christianity (http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/04/30/religious-dialogue-as-soul-making-a-prayer-to-buddha-and-christ/). My Christian side is very much rooted in the incarnational dimension of the traidtion (I have no time for that escapist rapture crap).
I will leave you with an invitation to read some thoughts of my own on the role of religion and spirituality in politics. It is based largely on Bellah’s book “Religion in Human Evolution”: http://footnotes2plato.com/2012/03/19/cosmopolitical-reflections-on-economy-society-and-religion/
Hope you are well.
Incredible clairity and it is my great luck to have you as a dharma brother!
Shucks! The feeling, Russ, is mutual.
I must say my reading of this blog post went south when the celebration of corporate capitalism appeared.
Regarding socialism. Every socialist experiment since WWII has been corrupted, subverted, destabilized, crushed, overthrown, bombed, or invaded by the United States. Look no further than central and South America. Recall Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, the atrocities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras. All countries and people seeking self-determination.
In Vietnam Ho Chi Minh envisioned governance based on OUR constitution. That was not enough to prevent more bombs dropped on his small country than all that were used during WWII.
Cuba was bombed, invaded, infected with disease, water supplies, and systems of need to the weakest destroyed because Castro dared to break the grip of the capitalists.
Not one country was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits, not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.
Martin King was correct when he said that his country was the greatest purveyor of evil in the world. Why might that be?
Greed, power, and control.
I’m about as good a Buddhist as I was a Catholic which is to say, not very good. But my heart bleeds for the victims of capitalist wars. Wars in constant search of land, cheap labor, and resources. Taken from people not willing to bow down to the neo-liberal globalist campaign that assures a constant flow of our meager earnings to a few blood thirsty evil men and women at the top of the pyramid.
Perhaps your position is just a reflection of the existentialist portion of your nom de guerre.
Have a nice day.
JohnT, thanks for joining in the conversation. I am sympathetic, in part, to your argument. As you read in my article, I strongly opposed many of the U.S. military interventions and much of American foreign policy during the post-war years until now, from Vietnam to Iraq, and certainly including American policy to Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Chile. While I agreed with George Kennan’s view of the need to contain the expansionist, colonialist tendencies of Stalin’s Soviet Union, American foreign policy was determined by multiple objectives including anti-Soviet expansionist containment, anti-totalitarianism, the need to secure an oil supply in the middle east, and to support private property interests of certain corporations (e.g. United Fruit, etc). You are right that the U.S. tried and often succeeded in destabilizing or harming countries that were interested in establishing socialist societies. I would argue, however, that most of these actions were not “Capitalist” wars per se (although some interventions were) but were driven by state interests, realpolitik, and an ideology of anti-totalitarianism. Iraq, for example, was not mostly about oil (it was easier to just buy it from Saddam Hussein’s government, who was very happy to sell it) but about the geopolitical projection of American power into Asia minor after the fall of the Soviet Union. Vietnam was not about grabbing Viet Nam’s natural resources, but about a misguided application of a containment policy which was aimed against Soviet expansionism.
That being said, every country that has tried its own route to socialism in Africa and Asia — even when the U.S. has not intervened — has eventually had to backtrack, because non-market-responsive economics simply does not work, central planning doesn’t work, collectivization doesn’t work, anarcho-syndicalism doesn’t work, and removing the profit motive and relying on people’s good will to produce goods and services doesn’t work. You always end up with more poverty, a new wealthy privileged and corrupt class of commissars or princelings, and a loss of individual rights. You always end up with a system of “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Everything else is wishful thinking. Compare living conditions in North and South Korea if you want to understand the difference between market-based and collectivist economics. Also, look at the success of Asian states like Taiwan, Singapore, and the former Hong Kong.
While I think American foreign policy has often been tragically misguided and has produced an unconscionable death toll of civilians and combatants in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other negative consequences for the people in societies we intervened in, we are hardly the greatest purveyor of evil in the world. Stalin and Mao killed many more people and caused much more human misery than the United States ever did. The bloody Shia-Sunni civil war which is currently raging (yes, thanks in part to the U.S.’s destabilization of oppressive Arab dictatorships, but also due to geopolitical rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia) is certainly, right now, a greater cause of evil in the world than anything the U.S. in currently doing, even if you disagree with the current U.S. drone strikes, etc. against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Boko Haram and Al-Shabab are certainly greater purveyors of evil right now than we are. It’s useful to keep a sense of proportion. In addition, your argument ignores any of the good that US foreign policy has accomplished, from the rebuilding of Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, the defense of Western Europe with the Berlin Airlift, to the rebuilding of Japan, the intervention in the genocide occurring in the former Yugoslavia, the defeat of Iraqi aggression in Kuwait, etc.
This was a profound article. I have been struggling with many of these issues and at times it seems you discussed my points word for word.
It made the beauty of buddhism shine through. While I still have a problem using mindfulness to kill other humans (it is being taught in the army) your view of its adoption was interesting and I feel is it correct. It was never a revolutionary movement but a subtle influencer upon those around the practioner. I just hope that mindfulness coaches remember that compassionate mindfulness is the key.
I disagree on the military part of your post. You seem to focus on the one side, on the efficiency and the reduction of the post-war suffering of the soldiers fighting for the U.S, and not really concerning or inquiring the nature of the war itself (90% of the times an unfair one, based solely on reasons of national dominion).
In my view, capitalism is by its nature human-repressing and it is not a matter of its present form but rather a matter of content.
I think one should cultivate equally these two aspects: the internal and external, finding a balance.
On the one hand, without the internal, personal ethics, societies can easily transform to totalitarian regimes like the one in the USSR, continuing to repress people just within a different context than capitalism. On the other, if one chooses to embrace capitalism and stick to a strictly personal cultivation, to attain nirvana, there isn’t much change in the objective world. The fact that life is suffering is right, but then again there are certain things people could do at a social level not to put an end to the suffering, but at least reduce it.
After all, the internal and external are not seperated that much, they share a lot: the society in which you grow, and your class. affects your personality a great deal.
P.S: I really like your blog, and come here at times
P.S2: There is this essay i found on the net a while ago, and it’s closely related to the subject: http://www.unipune.ac.in/snc/cssh/ipq/english/IPQ/6-10%20volumes/10%2003/PDF/10-3-1.pdf
P.S3: Pardon me for any mistakes, english is not my mother tongue
Hi, Bill. Glad you like the blog. My focus in this post on the role of mindfulness in the military is that if one is going to have a military, one is better off having a mindful one rather than a heedless one. That was my only point in regard to the military. The men who are authorized to use force to serve our alleged national interests have little to say about where or for what purpose they are deployed. Why not at least give them the same training we give chronic pain patients, school teachers, physicians, depressed patients, and the incarcerated?
As to your belief that free markets are by nature “human repressing,” we have a difference of opinion, and there is probably nothing I could say that would bring us to agreement. There are plenty of problems with our current system, including excess inequality and environmental degradation, but I am still stumped when it comes to imagining something qualitatively better that would actually work in real life and not just in “theory.” I am in favor of taming markets by constraining them within legal and ethical envelopes, rather than trying to imagine an novel economic system whose central mechanisms are disconnected from marketplace signals. China’s current problems with zombie companies, empty apartment complexes, and increasing debt are a case in point. It’s China’s people, especially its poorest, who will suffer if China doesn’t learn to make better use of markets.
Lastly, I never made a case for “strictly personal cultivation” and “attaining Nirvana” and not transforming the social order. Buddhism stresses that we’re all interconnected, that there’s no difference between the inner and the outer, and that we seek awakening for the benefit of all beings, not for ourselves. In Buddhism, after all, the Self is empty of genuine self-existence. We both agree that as citizens of planet earth we all have a moral obligation to improve the world. The problem is that there are different points of view as to what approaches would actually improve it, and which would just make things worse.
You might find this reflection on Mindfulness interesting! Thanks for your writing! https://medium.com/@eastonsmith/on-isis-and-mindfulness-d2882f020745#.1vxxp2yx4
Thanks, Easton, for sharing your experience and your reflections. I understand the tensions you experienced at that moment, but it seems to me that part of what teaching mindfulness means is being able to be a container for those tensions, and finding the skillful means to discover what is genuinely possible in any given moment. My own inclination would have been to ask group members to 1) extend the circle of compassion as widely as they could in that moment and also 2) to accept that there may be boundaries to how far their compassion could be genuinely extended, and also to 3) accept those current boundaries in a friendly, curious non-judgmental way, and lastly, 4) to hold open the possibility that at some future time, with continued practice, those boundaries could possibly change. This kind of opening of possibilities in a friendly, gentle way embodies mindfulness practice more than a didactic, critical, or challenging stance. Mindfulness students don’t need to share the teacher’s values. They need to do their own practice and to charitably honor with their own genuine limits without reifying those limits as permanent demarcations.
Very interesting take on a challenging synthesis — whether Hegelian or Jewish/Buddhist. My own reflections on what Merton referred to as ”Contemplation and action” have long been informed by Sri Aurobindo, who himself was quite active (arrested in 1907 by the British and jailed as a ”dangerous terrorist” — and I’m writing this on the morning after the Brussels terrorist attack).
In ”The Ideal of Human Unity”, Sri Aurobindo does come quite squarely on the side of the necessity of a radical transformation of consciousness for any ultimate solution to humanity’s problems. However, along the way, he reviews several thousand years of attempts — from small Indian and Greek city-states to empires to nation states to ”internationalism” (as it was referred to around World War I when he wrote this) to budding attempts at the ”world state” or better, a ”world union.” He has some elegant descriptions of the contrast between the ever growing centralization of power that might lead to a dangerous world state vs the kind of integration of local and global that was gathering force some 50 years ago and continues to grow apace.
Perhaps to your surprise, I think if you look at — not what Bernie Sanders is now saying (that is, ignore the labels, whether socialist or democratic socialist or whatever) but how he actually governed in Burlington, VT from 1981 to 1989, you might find a rather remarkable example of the integration of the spiritual and ”earthly,” as well as the Jewish prophetic tradition with at least some of the refinement of the Bodhisattwa ideal.
Sanders turned a decaying industrial city into what is now considered one of the 2 or 3 most livable cities in the country — and even his opponents, a quarter century later, give him much credit for this. As someone who was often described as ”out Republicanning the Republicans” in his efforts to be fiscally prudent, to encourage small business (and large — he was not doctrinaire about anything, and one of his staunchest allies throughout that decade was a wealthy Republican conservative). But most of all, with every opportunity he had, he gave up municipal power in favor of giving governing ability to the citizens — by helping to build neighborhood and other civic associations, building a model for affordable housing that has been copied in cities across the country, and many other ways.
Of course, drawing on the Buddhist and Vedantic traditions, as well as being deeply informed by his scholarly expertise in ancient Greek literature and polity, Sri Aurobindo goes far beyond this. I highly recommend his work, The Ideal of Human Unity, along with ”The Human Cycle.”
Don, thanks for your reading recommendations. I am unfamiliar with either Sri Aurobindo or his work. As far as Bernie Sanders goes, I am not surprised by your suggestion that his politics is an expression of the Jewish prophetic spiritual tradition. I am admirer of his politics, his personhood, and the fine city of Burlington.