Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Possessions, accumulaton and capitalism: it's not just about not craving stuff

I saw the article on the Tricycle Blog, "Buddhism, Money, and the Recession:  Where to Invest?" and thought it was another column, perhaps, on moral investments that one can make.  I was incorrect...

Nevertheless, as I began working with the experience in my practice I realized that if I can’t let go of some pictures, music, and writings, then how can I possibly prepare for death?! Contemplating this I saw something much more important than anything I’d ever seen on my computer screen. (As for the computer itself, it only took about a month of hard work and thrifty living to replace it.)

When looking back at all this, I feel tremendously grateful to be a Buddhist, and to have been instructed on the dangers of attachment, material and otherwise. I have never invested in stock or property, but instead, in study and practice. For happiness, joy, comfort, and entertainment I look to loved ones and friends—or just the interesting and odd happenings of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and not to ownership, consumption, or accumulation.

Now before I begin please don't think I'm criticizing the Tricycle blogger or the Tibetan Buddhist nun personally...but rather this is my response to the "stuff" post there, from a guy with my background.

Everyone in society has a form and function.  I make, statistically speaking, a pretty good salary; I'm in my peak earning years. My salary is not stratospheric, but it's not poverty level by any means.   I'm saving both for my "retirement" and my son's education.  There are algorithms for saving and investment; there are procedures, projections.  Given a certain amount of money at a certain amount of time, given spending rates, etc. there will be a result that gives how much will be available.   The algorithm is relatively fixed; at my age it's not something I think about all that much; the algorithm is in play.   I read the Big Picture blog and other economic news.

At work,   I have to act on behalf of all beings, and in the capacity of my particular job, that includes those on my project, my managers, my corporate patrons, my company's customers, and all people in the world. (Yes, we really do think that way.)   That cannot include abjuring all salary increases because it might!   That is because all the beings above have economic interests too, and if that doesn't look exactly like a zero sum game (i.e., let's put all the competitors out of business so  they starve!) it certainly does not mean that all the folks I work with should be poor either.  The famine relief workers need to be fed first. Of course, once fed, they better damn well relieve the famine!  But, unfortunately, a starving famine relief worker is as useless to relieving famine as one who is morbidly obese to the point of immobility.

I heard this Lama that is linked to in this blog post, and it's giving me the impression, of a person saying, "See how much I've got because I don't have anything compared to those other people?"

Understand what I'm saying?   If you've got responsibilities, it behooves you not to live as an ascetic. It would be irresponsible and egoistic to pretend to such things, and would be destructive to those around you.  The Buddhists, to their credit, leave this aspect of Siddhartha's life relatively intact.  Unless you have an existential trauma that compels you to leave family, friends and responsibilities, dammit, live up to  your family, friends, and responsibilities!

And if you are a monastic, don't think that in some way you've got something that other people don't.  

And if, by age, demographic, and economic circumstances, you make or don't make a certain amount of money,  it's not a virtue; its your age, demographic and economic circumstances!  If you are making what's appropriate to those circumstances, and they are effecting all beings well, very good.   But don't assume that a guy in a trailer or a mansion is fundamentally different.  Or even that he has more or less attachments.

Right livelihood is something else.


Nathan said...

"And just as we need food to sustain us, we also need money to thrive in the world. Whether we take the ascetic or the abundant approach (I prefer the Middle Way), I think it is important for us as Buddhists to continually keep the dharma in mind." These are comments from the end of her post. What's interesting to me is that the first sentence makes total sense to me, and seems to allow for differences based on householder needs for example.

Yet, the second sentence fails because when she says she prefers "the Middle way" I instantly go back to the list of objects and investments she says she's dropped off. Even though I can imagine she's pointing to that middle ground which "isn't physically located in the middle," it's a big leap for readers to make, given how she wrote so much about not having possessions.

Mumon said...

Thanks nation, I completely agree, but hey, she does have her path, and we shouldn't begrudge her her misspeaking if we ourselves misspeak.

That's why I didn't want my remarks to be taken personally that way.

To look at it another way: consider a pilot of a 757 en route across the USA, and mid-flight he suddenly realizes how he's contributing to global warming, the exploitation of people in "petroleum colonies" and what-not.

He's still got to keep piloting the jet. It's neither ascetic nor abundant at that time. The Middle Way is to keep piloting the jet.

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