A couple days ago my friend Gesshin Greenwood forwarded this article from Tricycle Magazine to me. The following is my response to her. As you will note, I was unable to reread the Tricycle article before sending this reply. I have decided not to reread it before posting this on my blog, so there may be some discrepancies between how I remembered the article and what it actually says. I don’t think those need to be corrected because sometimes criticizing one’s impressions of an article like this are just as valid as criticizing the article itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that interview in Tricycle you sent me. I think the guy makes some interesting and valid points. I think in some ways he is correct and in other aspects he may be looking at things the wrong way. I’m having a bear of a time getting on line right now, so I can’t go back to the article and check specifics. I’m just writing this from memory.
He talks a lot about what the Buddha would do. I think somewhere in the interview he acknowledges that this is an absurd question. But then he keeps on speculating anyway. I’m not sure he gets into why that’s an absurd question.
It’s an absurd question because you cannot separate any person from their historical circumstances. As Dogen says, “being is time.” In Star Trek: The Voyage Home, the crew of the Starship Enterprise leaves their historical circumstances and travels back to 20th century San Francisco. That kind of stuff is fun in movies, but it’s not real. Still, we tend to speculate about such stuff all the time. What would Jesus do? What would the Founding Fathers say about gun control? Would the Buddha advertise his summer retreats in the back pages of Shambhala Sun?
But the Buddha as a person is inextricably bound to the times in which he lived, just like Jesus and the Founding Fathers. If you actually try to think the question of what he would do if he were alive today through it becomes impossibly complicated. Who is going to explain to the Buddha what Shambhala Sun is? Or even what a magazine is? Who is going to teach him English? Who is going to explain the past 2500 years of human history to him? Who is going to tell him about The Beatles, Hitler, Napoleon, Louis XIV? Mohammed? Jesus? Who will explain to him how contemporary banking systems work? It just goes on and on.
That being said, maybe we can try to understand why the Buddha recommended his monks to live by begging. Was it because there was some kind of virtue in begging or in poverty? Is there? Is being poor in and of itself virtuous? Is begging? Lots of people are poor beggars without being particularly noble. I can’t see anything intrinsically good in it.
I don’t think he was teaching the value of poverty and begging. I think he was teaching the value of understanding that every human being lives by the support of the human community. We call certain people “independently wealthy” but that’s a misnomer. No one is independently wealthy. All wealth derives from the human community. Wealth cannot be created in any other way.
So-called “independently wealthy” people are people who take more from the human community than they actually need. They are far too often not much more than a drain and a burden on the rest of us. The Buddha knew that because he lived the first part of his life as one of those people.
What’s worse is that being wealthy is often just wasteful. Lots of people these days not only have more than they need, they have more than they can possibly use. They waste the resources of the human community in a way that really ought to be a crime. They’re kind of like cancer. Cancer occurs when one part of the body grows absurdly large at the expense of the rest of the body and thereby kills its host organism and then dies because that which supported its growth dies.
Of course not every wealthy person is a cancer on society. Some rich people do great good with their wealth. They often support art, music, and even Buddhist teachers. And I suppose people who make $5000 wristwatches need someone to support them too. It’s just that far too many times, great wealth simply ends up sucked into a bottomless black hole where it benefits no one, not even the one who supposedly possesses it.
The Buddha was trying to teach his followers not to be like that. He was trying to teach them to take only what they needed from the community and to understand how they depended upon that community. He wasn’t trying to teach austerity and pain. He was trying to teach them that they could be comfortable and happy that way.
The guy in the interview talks about how Buddhist meditation teachers work these days in the current economic system. They advertise. They get interviewed. They write books and try to sell them. This is, of course, what I do too.
I’ve often felt weird about all of this. I feel guilty every time I charge people money for leading a retreat. Right now I’m traveling through Europe like I do every year, leading retreats, giving talks, doing interviews and all the rest of that. I kind of hate it and I kind of love it.
Different sorts of jobs require different levels of fame and notoriety. When I worked in the international division of Tsuburaya Productions I didn’t need to be very famous. I did need to cultivate a reputation among the people I did business with as being dependable and competent. But I didn’t have to be famous.
As an author, I have to be famous in order to make a living. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, but those are all extraordinary cases. Most teachers also need to be famous. The only way you can make a living as a teacher without being famous is by being part of an institution. In that case, the institution itself provides the necessary fame. For example, a professor at Harvard University doesn’t need to be all that famous herself because Harvard University is famous.
The Buddha was famous. He and his monks were supported in a large part because he was famous. The guy in that interview talks about how Buddha was supported by a patron, as were many teachers like him. But why did those patrons choose to support them? How did they even know they existed at all? The Buddha didn’t take out ads in Shambhala Sun or appear on Oprah’s Super Spiritual Sunday show. But I’m sure he did a certain amount of what we would retrospectively call advertising.
I also recall that the author says he is director of some center for Buddhist studies and gets paid a stipend. I wonder how he got that position. I wonder if he expects all of us to get positions like that. I wonder how many jobs like that even exist. Should all Buddhists seek those kinds of jobs? Would the economy support a world full of people working for centers for Buddhist studies?
So we have no idea what Buddha would do if he were alive today. But we do have to figure out what we will do. We have to figure out what we’re comfortable with and what feels ethical to us.
I work for a living. I put in more hours nowadays each week than I ever did when I had a so-called “real job.” I deserve to get paid for what I do. When I had a “real job” I never felt guilty about working and getting paid for it. But now I do — all the time, It’s a drag. I don’t like it.
Guys like that guy in the interview are good at making people like me and you feel guilty about what we do. But is it useful? Does it help anyone?
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