The Buddha and Occupy Wall Street
The Buddha’s concerns with politics — or at least those what found their way into his teachings and have been recorded — were very limited.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since he lived at a time when kingdoms ruled by absolute monarchs were expanding their territory at the expense of clan-based republics and other kingdoms. The rise of monarchies was probably unstoppable, and there was little chance of any alternative for the foreseeable future.
Some of the kings were notoriously paranoid, placed spies in religious communities, and would literally kill their own parents to consolidate their power. It would have been very dangerous to criticize them directly, and so the Buddha’s emphasis in talking about politics tended to be on presenting models of how kings could rule well. And often those — no doubt for protection — were framed as myths.
In one of these myths, the Buddha indicated that one of the duties of kings was to prevent social unrest and to promote economic well-being through making sure that wealth was fairly distributed in society. He has no communist — he clearly recognised that there would be wealthy people and people with less wealth, and he was after all talking about a monarchy — but he recognized that a fair distribution of wealth was essential to a healthy society. The alternative, he suggested, was a repressive regime that kept people in line through heavy-handed law and order tactics.
Do you see any relevance to Occupy Wall Street?
As Frank Reynolds observed: “When the very large volume of the early Buddhist Dhamma literature is taken into account, it is evident that the amount of material devoted to kingship and political affairs is actually rather modest. Nevertheless, the presence of these elements in the early tradition is significant in that it indicates that even among the supposedly world-renouncing monks who were responsible for the preservation and extension of the Buddha’s teaching, such matters constituted one important focal point of interest and concern.” 
As for the actual content of the material on kingship and political affairs, Gombrich has pointed out that there are two approaches to kings in the Pāli canon. The first deals with real kings, and is literal and historical, while the second approach is what Gombrich calls “fantasy,” although the latter might better be described as a “mythic” approach. Uma Chakkavati makes a similar two-fold distinction, referring to passages describing “the actual or existing exercise of power by contemporary kings” versus “the ideal or normative exercise of power by the king.” The two categorizations are broadly equivalent. The passages dealing with real, historical kings tell us much about attitudes to and interactions with royalty at the time of the Buddha, including the “exercise of power.” The mythic passages are also normative in that they posit an ideal society where rulers are themselves governed by Dhamma.
Mythic Kings in the Pāli Canon
A number of texts (suttas and Jātakas) deal with the topic of with kings in a non literal and mythic way. Such suttas include the Kūṭadanta , the Cakkavatti, and the Agañña. As myths, precisely in what manner they are to be interpreted is, and no doubt always will be, open to question. While the stories are fantasy, these stories can still, I believe, reveal useful perspectives on broader ethical and social issues that Buddhism concerned itself with.
Northrop Frye posited that there are two social conceptions that can be expressed only in terms of myth. “One is the social contract, which presents an account of the origins of society. The other is the utopia, which presents an imaginative vision of the telos or end at which social life aims.” Buddhist texts contain elements both of a social contract and of Buddhist utopias. Frye continues: “ These two myths begin in an analysis of the present, the society that confronts the mythmaker, and they project this analysis in time and space. The contract projects it into the past, the utopia into the future or to some distant place.” We may also add to this that utopias could even be projected into the distant past in the form of a myth of a “golden age.”
If social contract and utopian myths do, as Frye puts it, “begin in an analysis of the present,” then an analysis of them may be useful in throwing light on the views of the Buddha. I argue here that the utopian elements in these myths may cast light onto the telos — and the social contract — that the Buddha saw as being desirable.
The Kūṭadanta Sutta and the 99%
The Kūṭadanta frames a Jātaka tale concerning the realm of King Mahāvijit (Great Victor). The Jātaka is framed by the story of a Brahmin, Kūṭadanta (we could translate this as “Gnasher”), who comes to ask the Buddha’s advice on the correct way to perform a sacrifice. Since the social role of a Brahmin is to perform sacrifice, and since the Buddha was known to oppose animal sacrifice, the scenario is absurd, but the story allows the Buddha to get some points across.
In his reply to Gnasher, the Buddha tells the tale of King Mahāvijit, who wished to make a sacrifice “which would be to his benefit and happiness for a long time.” Instead, Mahāvijit’s purohitaṃ (minister-chaplain) persuades him that he should rid his country of a plague of robbers. He should not attempt to do this “by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment.” These methods would only postpone the problems because of future retributions from survivors of the punishments.
Instead, he should distribute grain and fodder to those who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle; give capital to those in trade; and give proper living wages to those in government service. As a result of implementing these policies, the king is able to announce: “I have got rid of the plague of robbers; following your plan my revenue has grown, the land is tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses.” The Buddha later admits that he was the purohitaṃ who gave advice to the king.
This sutta, with its utopian elements, is interesting for the specific policy objectives that are advocated by the Buddha, in his previous life as minister-chaplain to Mahāvijit, as well as for the results of those objectives. Peace, harmony, and freedom from crime are posited as the telos of the social policies of redistributing wealth and paying living wages to government employees. More conventional policies such as “executions and imprisonment,” and “confiscation, threats and banishment” are abjured.
There is a clear suggestion that crime arises from poverty, and if prosperity were achieved, then crime would be eliminated. This might seem paradoxical as part of the belief system of a religious tradition which has full-time property-less practitioners, but there are, as Mavis Fenn has pointed out, two notions of poverty in the Pāli canon.
One is the practice of what could be called “voluntary simplicity,” and represents “the rejection of human relationships based on differentiation and hierarchy.” As Fenn puts it, “poverty undertaken for religious ends can promote spiritual development.” This it does by creating a life-style of such simplicity that ample time is created for self-developmental pursuits such as reflection and meditation.
The second form of poverty that Fenn discusses is “deprivation.” Involuntary material poverty, far from conducing to spiritual development, “results in dehumanization that severely restricts, if not destroys, the possibility of spiritual progress.” In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if the individual is struggling to meet the most basic needs for food and shelter, the need for self-actualization is unlikely to be a priority.
A fair distribution of wealth and investment in infrastructure are advocated, and since this wealth comes from the King’s own surplus, which can only have come from the people themselves, there is an implication that over-taxation has resulted in poverty-related crime. A fair and moderate taxation system which protects the poor would be logically consistent with the moral of the sutta. As a result of these policies, everyone benefits. Citizens are no longer forced by poverty into criminal activity, and therefore escape the risk of dire punishments. Ordinary citizens enjoy peace of mind, and can “with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses,” and the King’s job of maintaining a stable society is made considerably easier.
There are strong resonances here with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, which has moved far beyond Wall Street, to over 1500 places at the time of writing.
The corporation is king
We no longer have a literal king, but the corporation is now our metaphorical monarch. The mechanisms of the Republic are now controlled, in large part, by the rich, and by the corporations that made them rich. More than half of congress-people are millionaires. It can cost literally tens of millions to run for Senate, and our incombent president is likely to spend a billion dollars running for reelection. Where does this money come from? Much of it comes from corporations. You do not accept the money of the rich without making an implicit promise in return. That promise is, in effect, “I will represent your interests.” Our political system has become a subsidiary of Wall Street. We live in a metaphorical monarchy, and the corporation is king.
What kind of monarch do we have? A rapacious one, it would seem.
Ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belts. Although the country as a whole has been getting morse prosperous (see “US GDP per capita” on the graph above) ordinary people’s income has stagnated. Meanwhile, costs have risen. Just to take one example, according to Time,
Today, the average cost of a family health insurance offered by an employer is $13,375. That’s up 131% over the last decade—a period in which inflation rose only 28%. And one estimate says that if costs continue on their current trajectory, premiums will go up another 166% in the decade ahead.
The cost of a college education has been soaring as well, also by much faster than inflation.
Look again at the graph above, and you’ll see that the incomes of the richest — those who control the corporations who control the government — have been rising faster than GDP, or the nation’s wealth as a whole.
It gets worse when you look at the incomes of the top 1%:
Compare the lines for the top 5% and the top 1%. Since 1992, the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen their incomes rise by 13 percent in 2009 dollars, compared with an increase of 399 percent for the top 400.
So we have greedy kings, and the people are suffering.
Compassion before anger
What is our response to that? Obviously there’s no one response. Some will watch the incomes of the top 1% soar skyward, and cheer — even as their own incomes stagnate. Americans like to think of themselves as temporarily distressed billionaires. Some will look at those who are suffering, and scold them for a lack of initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. As presidential aspirant Herman Cain said, “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself … it is a person’s [own] fault if they failed.”
But more and more people are living in anxiety, in this culture where GDP has been growing, insecurity has been mounting, and median wages have been falling. And more and more people are realizing that our economic and political system is not working for them.
It behooves us to look at a website like We Are the 99%, and to see that even if we’re doing alright just now, we’re one crisis away from disaster. And if you’re not, most of the people you know and love are. Lose your health and you lose your job. Lose your job and you lose your health insurance. Lose your health insurance when you’re sick and you may well lose your house and your savings. Lose your house and you may lose your family. It can happen to anyone — anyone in the bottom 99%.
Some people may feel anger, and anger can be healthy. I’m not advising people to get angry, but it may happen and it’s natural. The thing is to handle anger skillfuly. Anger is energy, and handled properly our anger can lead us to accomplish much good. Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., and you hear an angry man — one who helped transform a political system that was not working for all people, but only for those with white skins (and not even all of those). If the energy behind our anger (a desire to overcome injustice, for example) is handled properly, it can be used constructively. But if it’s not channeled properly, anger can turn into hatred. Anger doesn’t necessarily want to cause harm — it can just want to overcome an obstacle. Hatred wants to hurt people, and anger can turn into hatred. This is the danger that faces us.
How do we handle our anger? Anger needs to be experienced within the context of compassion. Compassion is a natural response to other’s suffering. Read some of the stories on We Are the 99%. Feel for those people. Then if you’re still angry, feel compassionately and angry. Let compassion soften your anger so that your desire to change things is “clean” and free from the desire to hurt, despise, or belittle. Let go of hatred. Despising the 1% isn’t going to help.
It’s about the hundred percent
And realize that Occupy Wall Street is about all of us. Despite the language of “We are the 99%,” realize that this is not about the 99% versus the 1%. It’s about the 100%. The king was troubled by robbers. Kings should be worried about robbers, because the king is the wealthiest and has the most to lose. What’s happening now, with the incomes of the richest soaring and those of ordinary people falling — is unsustainable. No economy can endure under those conditions. What happens when cutbacks to education leave us without enough skilled people to create a vibrant economy? What happens when our crumbling infrastructure hinders commerce even further? What happens as fewer and fewer people are able to buy the goods that allow the corporations to flourish? What happens when the economy is milked dry, and plunged into a depression?
Perhaps the 1% will then take their wealth and flee to tropical islands, investing in the now-vibrant economies of India and China. Do the wealthy really want to destroy the largest country in the world? Do they want to have that on their consciences (and I assume that they have consciences)? Perhaps they’ll hang in here and make do, staying within gated communities, protected from the rabble by private police forces, and scraping by on $5 billion instead of $10 billion. Is that how they want to live?
Are they even happy? The 1% are getting richer and richer, but they’re not getting happier. Economic dissatisfaction arises when we compare ourselves to others. Most people would prefer to earn $50,000 when others earn $40,000, than to earn $60,000 when others earn $70,000 — even if the cost of living is the same. Who do billionaires compare themselves to? Other billionaires. The top 1% are in a race to the top that has no end. Or it will end, because the economy will be destroyed. It’s in the interests of the happiness of the rich to inhibit their craving. This has long been recognized as one of the benefits of progressive taxation.
The king recognized that for the good of the entire country — and for his own good — he needed to pay fair wages and invest in the infrastructure of his country. As a result, the king himself becomes more prosperous, and so do the people. Both the 1% and the 99% benefit.
What Occupy Wall Street is about
I’ve heard many people say that they don’t understand what Occupy Wall Street is about. Here’s what it’s about: Our corporations, and the rich, own our political system. Nothing that protects ordinary people from the harm that unrestrained corporations can cause — whether it’s protecting people from pollution, ensuring a fair minimum wage, or even just making it easier for people to get access to health care — can go through Congress without enormous sums being spent on lobbying to prevent those benefits from coming about. Even a modest tax increase on the top 1% will be met with a tsunami of money sweeping over Congress. Politicians depend on money from corporations in order to run for office. If they displease the rich, they know that corporate money will be used in attack ads, which frequently twist the truth out of all recognition.
Our corporations are king, but they shouldn’t be. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had our current system in mind. They wanted government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Right now we have government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. [Actually, this is wrong. For further details see the comments below. The framers of the constitution despised the idea of democracy as we undertand it today, but as the US evolved socially, the understanding of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — as expressed by Lincoln in the Gerrysburg Address — emerged.]
That’s what Occupy Wall Street is about. Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation between church and state.” And the constitution itself, realizing that religions could co-opt entire political systems in order to further their own agendas, creating theocracies, prohibits government from from becoming a subsidiary of any church. It’s time to erect a wall of separation between corporate money and state. It’s time to stop our political system from being a subsidiary of Wall Street. It’s time that the economy worked for the 99% as well as the 1%. It’s time for government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
That’s what Occupy Wall Street is about.
1. “The Two Wheels of Dhamma: A Study of Early Buddhism,” in Gananath Obeyesekere, The Two Wheels of Dhamma, AAAR Studies in Religion Number 3, AAR Chambersburg, Pennsylvannia 1992.
2. Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, Dehli, OUP, 1987, p158.
3.Utopia, Robert M. Adams (tr. and ed.), Norton, (NY 1992), p205.
5. Mavis Fenn, “Two Notions of Poverty in the Pāli Canon,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume III, 1996.
6. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a six-level hierarchy of motives that, according to his theory, determine human behavior. Maslow ranks human needs as follows: (1) physiological; (2) security and safety; (3) love and feelings of belonging; (4) competence, prestige, and esteem; (5) self-fulfillment; and (6) curiosity and the need to understand.