What makes the world go around in the world of Buddhist practitioners?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Having taught many lay followers in addition to his monastic disciples, the Buddha was well aware of the temptations that life offers for those people whom he called “uninstructed worldlings.” Although addressed to monks, “eight worldly conditions” (attha lokadhamma) well summarize what the Buddha considered to be the temptations that uninstructed worldlings would turn into the main motivations for their activities in the world: “These eight worldly conditions, monks, keep the world turning around, and the world turns around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. … When an uninstructed worldling, monks, comes upon gain, he does not reflect on it thus: ‘This gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.’ … But, monks, when an instructed noble disciple comes upon gain, he reflects on it thus: ‘This gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.’” (Anguttara Nikaya 8:6)

With gain and loss included as the first two of the eight worldly conditions, it is clear that the Buddha was well aware that gain and loss would keep the world turning around as the people would turn seeking financial gain into the main goal of their life’s activities. The Buddha was not necessarily opposed to the acquisition of wealth that results from seeking financial gain, provided that wealth was righteously acquired through right livelihood. As a matter of fact, the Buddha accepted generous support of rich merchants such as Anathapindika and Visakha because theirs was “righteous wealth righteously gained.” Moreover, as faithful lay followers of the Dhamma, they understood very well that “the gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.”

If wealth, or seeking financial gain, is one temptation, seeking fame is another worldly temptation that propels many men and women in their daily endeavors. Actually, the conventional world we live in rewards those who are successful in their endeavors with awards and prizes, even inducting them into the Halls of Fame as the reward for their accomplishment. But as Marcus Aurelius Antonius (121-180), who may come close to the Buddha’s conception of raja cakkavatti (wheel-turning monarch) as an enlightened Roman Emperor whose contribution to the history of Western philosophy is well recognized, reminds us, “all is ephemeral—fame and the famous as well.” (Meditations IV. 35) Of course, it takes someone like Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who chose to turn his back on the conventional world, to be able to declare: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” (Walden 18) For the fact of the matter is that fame, too, “is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.”

A line in An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “Some praise at morning what they blame at night,” captures very well that praise and blame are flimsy and impermanent. For those who seek truth for the sake of truth, or those who seek beauty in works of art, blame or praise does not have a lasting effect on them, as exemplified by a statement John Keats (1795-1821) made in his letter to a friend: “Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works.” (Letter to James Augustus Hessey) It comes as no surprise, then, that this statement comes from a poet best known for his 1818 poem, Endymion, with the first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This, of course, raises a question about whether joy, or pleasure, is everlasting, as Keats seems to suggest that it is.

Here again, the Buddha reminds us of the impermanence of pleasure and pain. The word “pleasure” here is a translation of the Pali word “sukha,” which is also translated as “happiness.” “Happiness” (sukha), along with “rapture” (piti), comes up in the Buddha’s exposition of Right Concentration (samma samadhi), one of the eight factors in his Noble Eightfold Path: “Here, monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a monk enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly understanding, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With abandonment of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.” (Samyutta Nikaya 45:8).

What is to be noted is that, while rapture and happiness appear during the first three phases of concentration, they disappear by the time one reaches the fourth jhana. In fact, both pleasure and pain need to be abandoned and, with the abandonment of pleasure and pain, one enters the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant. The word “equanimity” makes its appearance in the third jhna, culminating in the purification of mindfulness by equanimity in the fourth jhana. Given that “equanimity” appears as one of the Four Immeasurables of “loving-kindness” (metta), “compassion” (karuna), “altruistic joy” (mudita), and “equanimity” (upekkha), we can see that by the time the practitioner reaches the fourth jhana, he/she is now ready for the Bodhisattva path that has come to be emphasized by Mahayana Buddhists. And with the appearance of the Bodhisattva path, we finally enter the stage where “love” makes the world go around in the world of Buddhist practitioners. To get there, needless to say, requires constant study and practice on the part of us practitioners.

From the Three M’s of Capitalism to the Three M’s of Buddhism: Reorganizing Our Way of Life for Environmental Sustainability, Social Justice and Individual Wellbeing

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Three M’s of Capitalism: Capitalism, as a social system, organizes individual economic actions based on the private ownership of capital employed in the production of goods and services and the market exchange of goods and services thus produced. Invented in Europe in the late fifteenth century, capitalism has become a global system whose influence, crossing national borders, now affect the lives of all the people around the world. What is behind the amazing growth and expansion of capitalism in the last several centuries is the logic that drives capitalism as a way of life. That logic that drives capitalism as a way of life can be characterized by the three M’s of “maximization,” “manipulation,” and “misconception.”

Whether one is a producer or a consumer, the goal of individual behavior in capitalistic economies can be characterized by “maximization.” Thus, a producer tries to maximize profits to be gained by producing goods and services and selling them in competitive markets. A consumer, on the other hand, ties to maximize satisfaction to be obtained by purchasing these goods and services and consuming them. The goal of “maximization” applies to the individual behavior of other economic agents in capitalistic economies as well such as investors, wholesalers, retailers, and moneylenders. While it is clear that such universal pursuit of “maximization” places a severe burden on the carrying capacity of Mother Earth, capitalism as a social system of organizing individual economic actions does not have a built-in system of checks and balances that would prevent the depletion and degradation of material resources in the natural environment. What makes the situation worse is that the individual behavior of economic agents who pursue the goal of “maximization” is treated as rational behavior in standard textbooks of economics as the model of rational “economic man.”

The way economic agents, especially those who possess capital, go about conducting their economic activities can be characterized by the word, “manipulation.” Thus, “manipulation” appears in the exploitative relationship between management and labor in the production of goods and services where the lives of many individuals as workers are manipulated by a small number of individuals who are rich and powerful as the owners of capital. Besides humans, information, too, becomes an object of manipulation in that deceptive, even false, information is employed to artificially stimulate consumer demand for goods and services. Most importantly, the small number of rich and powerful capitalists accumulates their wealth by the manipulation of financial markets such as collusion and insider information to gain advantage over others, leading to the instability of financial markets.

The third M of the three M’s of capitalism, “misconception,” refers to the misconception, or the misguided view, of the true nature of reality of our existence in the universe perpetuated in capitalistic economies. For the proponents of capitalism, the universe is nothing but the reservoir of material resources called natural capital that can be exploited to improve the material standards of living for us humans. Improving the material standards of living is regarded as important because of another “misconception” that human progress is measured by the continual expansion and growth of material products, on which human wellbeing is said to depend. This kind of materialistic outlook on life, namely, the view that human progress is measured by the continual improvement in the material standards of living, is a “misconception” of the true nature of the universe in that the carrying capacity of Mother Earth as the reservoir of material resources is not limitless but finite. Capitalism is also based on another “misconception” regarding the interdependent nature of our social relationships, turning them into antagonistic relationships subject to “manipulation.” Most importantly, capitalism as a way of life suffers from a “misconception” of the true nature of us humans in that our wellbeing is conceived only in material terms, with the spiritual aspect of human existence contributing nothing, if any, to it.

In short, capitalism is a system that operates on the presumption that everything in the universe is capital of one form or another: natural, social or human. Thus, everything in the universe becomes an object of private ownership, a source of making profits, and an instrument of gaining wealth and power.

From the Buddhist perspective, capitalism as a way of life is indeed a system that is built on the three poisons of “greed,” “hatred,” and “delusion.” As the Buddha reminds us, “Greed, hatred, and delusion of every kind are unwholesome. Whatever action a greedy, hating, and deluded person heaps up—by deeds, words, or thoughts—that too is unwholesome.” (Anguttara Nikaya, 3:69) While the Buddha was not talking about a specific kind of society when he uttered these words, it is clear that the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion capture very well the deeds, words and thoughts of economic agents in capitalistic economies.

The Three M’s of Buddhism: How can we turn the three poisons of capitalism, as represented by the Three M’s of “maximization,” “manipulation,” and “misconception,” into wholesome actions of our body, speech and mind through which we interact with the universe and the world around us? Here the insights of Buddhism offer some hints as to how we may accomplish this task of turning unwholesome actions into wholesome actions. To begin with, the universe, to the Buddhists, is not the reservoir of material resources that we can exploit to satisfy our greed for goods and services. Rather, it is the ground for our very existence as a species, defined by the intricate web of causes and conditions that give birth to and support all sentient beings as well as inanimate objects. The proper attitude towards the universe is therefore that of the middle way between extreme abundance and extreme abnegation in all of our economic activities, including consumption and production. In other words, what we need is “moderation,” not “greed,” in our relationship with the universe, or the natural environment, in view of the finite carrying capacity of Mother Earth, on whose viability as a living system the life of us humans depends. “Moderation” is thus the first M of Buddhism as a way of life.

As social animals, we humans communicate with each other with “speech,” which can be unwholesome or wholesome depending on the way we choose our words. In order to promote wholesome relationships among members of human communities, what we need is not “hatred,” that leads to “manipulation,” but “loving-kindness,” or “mutuality.”

Though the world “mutuality” is also employed as a formal language of law in some contexts, what is implied by “mutuality” here is the kind of human relationship that is based on mutual respect among members of a social organization, be it a family or a business enterprise. “Mutuality” is thus the second M of Buddhism as a way of life.

The world with which we humans interact includes the spiritual world of our ideas, images, and thoughts. This is where “delusion,” or “misconception,” comes in, which prevents us from seeing the true nature of reality in the world around us. In order to see the true nature of reality, we need to develop “mindfulness.” Mindfulness, or awareness, must be developed and cultivated so that we can see every thing as it truly is, starting with breathing, the very act that makes our life possible in the first place. Starting with the awareness of breathing, we can develop and cultivate the capacity to see the true nature of reality and thereby attain liberation, as the Buddha reminds Ananda with the following words: “Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, Ananda, is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfill the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfill true knowledge and liberation.” (Samyutta Nikaya 54:13) Fulfilling true knowledge and liberation lead us to wellbeing by liberating us from attachment to the worldly conditions such as wealth and power. Thus, “mindfulness” is the third M of Buddhism as a way of life.

How do we make the transition? In view of all the problems associated with capitalism such as the environmental degradation, the social tension that stems from the income disparity between rich capitalists that comprise only 0.1 percent of the total population and the rest of us, and the inherent instability of financial markets, it is clear that the three M’s of capitalism need to be replaced by the three M’s of Buddhism. To do so, however, is not an easy task, for we have to break down the walls of vested interests that protect those rich and powerful capitalists whose wealth and power have been accumulated through the three M’s of capitalism.

In a way, the third M of “mindfulness” is the most comprehensive M of Buddhism as a way of life in that “mindfulness” about the Buddhist Dharma includes both the first M of “moderation” and the second M of “mutuality.” Thus, spreading the message of “mindfulness” would be the first step we can take towards developing the three M’s of Buddhism—from family life to community life, from business organizations to educational organizations. Preaching to the choir, or the sangha, is not the main intension behind writing this short essay, for Buddhist practitioners around the world are already familiar with the need for a fundamental change in our outlook on life if we are to avoid the catastrophic outcome that awaits the blind pursuit of the three M’s of capitalism. Some academic economists are also waking up to the need for such a fundamental change and exploring the possibility of developing an alternative paradigm to standard textbook economics by incorporating insights from the Buddhist dharma (See, for example, Brown, Clair, Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, and Magnuson, Joel, From Greed to Well-Being A Buddhist Approach to Resolving Our Economic and Financial Crises, Chicago: Policy Press, 2016). For us Buddhist practitioners, the key question is how we can translate our practice into an effective venue for developing and cultivating mindful individuals and institutions to spread the three M’s of Buddhism.