A letter to Jacob

picture of mailboxes

I get some interesting emails. Usually they’re kind and appreciative. I particularly enjoy hearing from people who have found things I’ve written, or guided meditations I’ve recorded, to be helpful. Often people ask questions, and I’m happy to reply to them to the best of my ability.

Sometimes the emails I get are critical, though, and this one that arrived just a few days ago falls into that camp.

It’s from someone who called himself Jacob, although I don’t know if that’s his real name. I don’t know if it’s your real name, I should say, since this blog post is my reply to you, Jacob. (You used a fake email address, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to address your comments directly.)

Here’s the email you sent. You’ll find my reply below:

Name: Jacob
Do your supporters know they are in fact supporting your living in a 400K condo, STEPHEN?
You are hardly a Buddhist with a begging bowl, now are you? Unless and until you make full disclosure online of this hithertofore undisclosed material fact to those supporters you are in my view being unethical.

Isn’t that a Buddhist no-no? Tis odd how you have never mentioned this before…

[link to my apartment’s Zillow listing removed]

So, Jacob, you did your homework and tracked down my home on a real estate site! More about that in a moment.

And you also found my family name, which was indeed Stephen until I legally changed my name after my ordination in 1993. So that hasn’t been my last name for a long time.

I believe this is called “deadnaming,” where a person insists on using someone’s former name. It’s like if a woman gets married and changes her surname, yet someone insists on using her maiden name. The point of doing this is to cause offense by refusing to recognize something that is important to the other person. So that’s not a good start, Jacob. You’re forgiven, though! This has happened to me many times, and it really doesn’t bother me.

Let’s get back to the house thing, though. Yes, you did your homework and looked up my home address online.

Unfortunately you didn’t do your homework very thoroughly. The reason I have never mentioned that I live in a “$400k condo” is because the address you linked to in your email is actually the rented apartment that I share with my partner.

You’d have seen that it was a rental apartment if you’d dug around a little more in the Zillow listing.

Here’s the relevant part. I’ve circled where it mentions the rent. Just below that it uses the word “tenant.” I admit it’s a little confusing, since it also mentions “condo dues” for reasons I can’t guess at, except that my landlord’s secretary is a bit of a character and a little odd in the way she writes things — maybe you can get a flavor of that in the listing! She *loves* asterisks!! And exclamation marks!! It’s kind of fun!!

(It’s also odd that she says that the apartment is available August 19th. I’m assuming this is an old listing, since we’re still living here!)


Anyway, no, I do not live in a $400,000 condo. I don’t own a house. I can’t afford one at present.

I rent an apartment with my partner. It’s not a luxury apartment: the rent is $1,765, including a $50 fee for our two dogs and a surcharge because my kids stay here part-time. (Landlords, eh? They’ll get you for everything!) We’d like to own our own place one day, so that our dogs can have a yard to run around in, and we’re trying to save for that. Of course I’ll be in my 90’s by the time the mortgage is paid off, if we can ever find a place we can afford.

I said our apartment is not a luxury apartment. It’s a decent place to live, although it’s not in the nicest part of town. Until a couple of months ago we had a couple of meth addicts living downstairs from us. They weren’t too much trouble except when their cigarette smoke and weed came up into our apartment. Fortunately they didn’t burn the place down before they left. I took a walk-through after they’d gone and while the apartment was being gutted, and the carpets were covered in cigarette burns. Oh, and dog shit from their pit bull! So, not a luxury apartment, and not in the best part of town. Good news: our new downstairs neighbors are a lovely young couple!

It’s not the worst part of town either, though. We’re right beside some woods where I like to walk the dogs.

But even if I had lived in a $400k condo, what would that mean, Jacob? It could have been inherited. It might be my partner’s. I might have bought it at some time in my life when I had a high paying job and now be living in poverty. (Although there’s never a time I had a high-paying job.) I might be sleeping on the couch in a friend’s house. There are lots of possibilities one could consider.

Also, a minor point: in the area where I live, a $400,000 house is well below the median house sale price of $550,000 (crazy, eh!), which is why I’m renting. So if I had owned this place it would be a below-average house in a fairly working-class town.

You demanded that I “make full disclosure online of this hitherto-fore undisclosed material fact,  Jacob. So here it is. I can’t disclose that I live in an expensive condo, because I don’t. But I do disclose that I live in a rented apartment, splitting $1,765 of rent with my partner.

And no, I’m not a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl. (Although I am a Buddhist.) I have two adopted children and two rescue dogs, and (as mentioned) a partner. I’m not rich, either. I recently bought a five-year-old Prius C (a hybrid electric/gasoline vehicle) that I got from a friend at a good price. It’s replaced my previous car, a 12-year-old Mazda6, which I bought used eight years ago, and which has 216,000 miles on the clock — most of them from the previous owner, who did a lot of driving. I have virtually no savings because I just gave them to the friend who sold me the Prius. (By the way, I’m absolutely loving the fuel economy and I’m glad to know that my carbon footprint has shrunk.) Oh, I have no pension plan either.

I basically just scrape by, and often experience anxiety because I have to juggle bills. So it’s kind of ironic to be accused of being wealthy.

Apart from three years in Scotland when I worked for the Community Education Department in Lanarkshire, I’ve spent my entire adult life either as a student or working full-time to teach meditation and Buddhism. It’s not a lucrative way to make a living. When I ran a retreat center in the Scottish Highlands, or an urban Buddhist center in Edinburgh, or worked in a Buddhist right livelihood business I basically got my food and board covered, plus some pocket money. Things are better now, but it’s still often a struggle to get by. It’s been worth it, though. Even though I don’t have any savings and will probably never be able to retire, I enjoy what I do. I especially find it heart-warming to know that I’ve helped people become happier.

Anyway, It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, Jacob. We’ve all done it. If you’d just asked a question and given a real email address, I’d have been happy to reply with the information you were seeking. I imagine that you have concerns about “gurus” making vast sums of money, and there are good historical reasons for having those concerns. But believe me, that’s not my situation in the slightest.

Hopefully this has set your mind at ease, if you’re reading this. I hate to think that you’re out there suffering because you mistakenly believe I’m some kind of rich guru. And maybe other people think the same thing?

Money is tricky when you teach meditation. Much of the time in the past I’ve taught courses that had suggested donations, with plenty of leeway for people who couldn’t afford the full amount. Right now the bulk of the income that pays my rent and bills comes from monthly contributions from supporters. These are people who appreciate the teaching I do, and who pay a sum each month to Wildmind (the amount varies from person to person) to make it possible for me to explore and teach meditation. This is what I do full time. Being supported in that way is my dream!

Unfortunately the amount that comes in from supporters isn’t enough to cover my expenses, so I have to do other bits and pieces of work in order to make ends meet. I do long for the day when I no longer have to worry about money. (And I’d love my dogs to have a yard to run around in.)

So if you’re reading this, Jacob, and I haven’t annoyed you too much (that’s not my aim at all), and you see some value in what I teach, do feel free to consider becoming one of Wildmind’s supporters. I appreciate all the support I receive, because it allows me to do what I love, which is to teach meditation and help people live happier and more fulfilling lives. If you are interested, you can click on this link.

I hope you’re having a great day, Jacob — and anyone else who’s read this far.

With love,

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Wildmind as “right livelihood”

Old buddha statuesThe reactions I get when I tell people that I did an interdisciplinary Master’s degree in Buddhism and business studies are very telling. Once people have stopped laughing or spluttering incoherently, they usually say that they’d assumed that Buddhism and business were mutually exclusive. But in fact the concept of “right livelihood” is part of the Buddha’s core teaching, the Eightfold Path.

In Buddhist practice we’re encouraged to make every aspect of our lives an opportunity to practice mindfulness, compassion, balance, and insight. Since we all have to earn a living, our work needs to become part of our practice.

Our mission at Wildmind is to benefit the world by promoting mindfulness and compassion through teaching meditation. Almost all the events we run are free of charge. This year (our Year of Going Deeper) we’ve been running eight events, which have had an average of 1,200 participants each. These events are by donation.

We also sell guided meditation CDs, which provide the bulk of the income that allows us to teach. And because we were selling our CDs online, we started selling other meditation supplies, both to support others’ meditation practice and to subsidize our teaching.

We don’t pay ourselves much — enough to live with simple dignity, but not enough (unfortunately) that we don’t have money worries.

But our aim is always the promotion of meditation.

There are other aspects to right livelihood as well. We strive to be honest. The three of us who work here strive to care for each other. We have a very harmonious office! We source fair trade products as much as possible. We support local small businesses (like the woman who makes our meditation cushions and the Buddhist former prison inmate who makes some of our malas).

I’m mentioning all this because I know you have choices about what you can do with your money. You can support large businesses like Amazon that treat their workers badly, dodge taxes, and use their quasi-monopoly power to bully suppliers. Or you can support people like us — not a faceless corporation, but people trying to make the world a truly better place.

Your money is power. You have the power to choose (or least influence) the kind of world you want to live in. Your choices matter.

This is consumer power at work: the money of people like you being used to make the world a better place.

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Say ‘Om:’ Increase your paycheck with meditation

Laurie Tarkan, Fox News: You might assume you have to kick it into high gear when you’re juggling emails, phone calls and multiple projects, but a new study shows that slowing down, or specifically, meditating, can make you a better multitasker – and a more productive employee.

Much has been written about the downside to multitasking: It’s been shown to make workers less accurate and efficient, it hampers your ability to filter out irrelevant information, (in other words to focus on the task at hand), and it increases stress and other negative feelings.

Researcher David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the …

Read the original article »

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‘Mindfulness’ grows in popularity—and profits

Julie Carr-Smyth, AP: In what’s become a daily ritual, Tim Ryan finds a quiet spot, closes his eyes, clears his mind and tries to tap into the eternal calm. In Ryan’s world, it’s a stretch for people to get this relaxed. He’s a member of Congress.

Increasingly, people in settings beyond the serene yoga studio or contemplative nature path are engaging in the practice of mindfulness, a mental technique that dwells on breathing, attention to areas of the body and periods of silence to concentrate on the present rather than the worries of yesterday and tomorrow.

Marines are doing it. Office workers are …

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“Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness” by Chogyam Trungpa

work sex money chogyam trungpa

As a long-standing Western Buddhist, my curiosity was piqued by this book. Work, sex and money are crucial issues to all of us, so I was interested to hear what Trungpa said.

Chogyam Trungpa was a major figure in the establishment of Buddhism in the West – particularly in North America. He was the founder of Vajradhatu and the Naropa Institute, two major achievements in themselves. But he did more than this.

Born in Tibet in 1940, and recognised as an infant as a major Kagyu tulku, he intensively trained in monasteries with Jamgon Kongtrul and other eminent teachers, later receiving full ordination. After dramatically escaping Tibet in 1959, he eventually arrived in Oxford University in 1963. Together with the spiritual movements he founded, he also wrote many Buddhist classics: Meditation in Action (1969), Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973), and The Myth of Freedom (1976), among many others.

Title: Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-596-6
Available from: Shambhala,, UK Kindle Store, US Kindle Store, and

In addition to his Dharma teaching, he was a poet, artist and playwright. He was also experimental and controversial. He was outspoken at a time of cultural change in the West, and was widely criticised for his seeming alcoholism and promiscuity. He died in 1987.

This volume is published by Shambala and edited by two disciples, Carolyn Gimien and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, and brought out in 2011 by Diana J. Mukpo, Trungpa’s widow.

The book is a compilation of seminars and talks on work, sex and money given in the early 1970s, but with some additional material from as late as 1981. His audience ranged from hippies though to businesspeople.

Trungpa’s book is divided into seventeen chapters. There are seven chapters addressing work, four dealing with sex, and the remaining six chapters devoted to money.

I found this a ‘curate’s egg’ compilation – good in parts. Some of the chapters are rather hard going, while others seemed insightful and rich. With the hard-going parts, I longed for more examples of his Dharma points, and cultural context. This is not a beginner’s book. But the lectures on work make useful reading, even forty years on.

In the seven chapters on work, Trungpa covers many themes, such as the sacredness of society, and our need as practitioners to be open to it – a radical idea at the time. The first three chapters don’t really address work per se, but really give a critique of modern society, and how self-centred and ego-based its individuals are. This is ground that is covered more fully in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Real spirituality, he asserts, is an acceptance of the world as already spiritual. He emphasises the centrality of meditation practice for Buddhists in modern life, if we are to grow. Buddhists get it wrong in two ways, he says: Firstly, leading packed lives where we have no space for creativity, and secondly, being too afraid of the creative process, so that we don’t try.

Trungpa unpacks these two flawed approaches in Chapter Four, explaining that they are both manifestations of the ego and of materialism. He warns against materialism, pointing to the underlying psychological materialism that underpins them. Heaviness, fascination, meanness and possessiveness are hallmarks of this kind of mind, he observes. He outlines ways forward, such as guarding against laziness, ‘earthing’ yourself at work, simplifying your life, and being in the present moment. Our primary tool for working with the materialistic mindset is Meditation in Action.

In the chapters on work, Trungpa stands back and observes the modern world from the eyes of a traditionally trained tulku, yet he himself knows the modern world intimately. It is a broad Dharmic overview he’s giving us, applied to our working lives, and some of it isn’t nice at all. Writing this review in 2012 – the Digital Age, it seems that Trungpa’s outlook is as relevant as ever.

Yet Trungpa sees this materialistic world as fruitful for Dharma practice, particularly through the developments of areas like discipline, work relationships, ethical practice, awareness and creativity. In Chapter Five, ‘Overcoming Obstacles to Work’, he explores ways of working with frivolity, daydreaming and interpersonal conflicts. Despite his good perspectives, there are no worked-out practices here, After all, this is the 1970s, and Buddhism is still new in the West.

The chapters covering sex, I found the least interesting, and at times, hard to stay with. After overviewing sex from a traditional Buddhist take on the dhyanas (blissful meditative states), Trungpa asserts that our Western approach to sex is too frivolous and guilt-ridden. We fail to see that sex is really about a deeper, sacred communication between people, which is imbued with respect. It should be more like an offering than an act. Our approach imprisons us, he claims.

Love, he sees as ego-based, delusional and even animalistic. He peppers the chapter with stories, which I found were of mixed value. He goes on to explore sexuality from the viewpoint of the traditional monastic practice of celibacy, as a way to skilfully deal with desire — examining the source of our desire in the mind, rather than suppressing it.

These explorations are interesting, but I think don’t offer much concrete guidance for disciples. There is no teaching of sexual ethics, or of skilful ways forward. He seems to be suggesting that we acknowledge our primal desires, and then transform it into vajra passion, an ego-less bliss of the transcendental. But it isn’t clear how we might do this, should we want to.

Trungpa also explores family relationships and karma. Amongst what can appear as gross generalisations regarding family life, there are a few little pearls of wisdom, e.g. the need for parents to not see their children as property – an extension of their egos.

He also touches on marriage, but says nothing especially original or instructive for the modern practitioner.

Trungpa makes more useful points around the subject of money. The six chapters cover many themes; e.g. money karma, business ethics, and panoramic awareness. Despite some unproductive sidetracks he is stimulating, and gives his observations and experience of the subject. For instance, he explores the relationship between spiritual institutions and money and how this so easily leads to power games. Trungpa isn’t approving or disapproving of money in itself, he simply says that if you have some, then it is nice to spend it on something creative.

He also looks at business ethics and warns against secrecy, double-dealing and poor integrity. Buddhist businesspeople need to be exemplars of business ethics. Moneymaking can lead to good or bad karma. The choice is ours.

Trungpa’s final lectures cover karma and what he terms ‘panoramic awareness’. Work, sex and money all create karma, and we should see that. Awareness is his central point, and that if we want to be happy, then there are no short cuts; we need to act skilfully. Finally, he asks who the ‘I’ is that wants to be happy? He then explores shunyata and non-duality, and concludes by emphasising that by working creatively with work, sex and money we can realise it.

Throughout this all, he constantly strives to raise our awareness and give us a deeper perspective on our financial outlooks. Personally, I wanted more practical emphasis on simplicity, and how to make your money-earning a useful means to spiritual development. I would also have liked an exploration of dana, or giving.

But then, perhaps, that’s not the point of this book. Trungpa taught in depth on these subjects in other contexts. This book, as you would expect from the title, is an exploration of work, money, and sex, and although the quality of that exploration is variable and sometimes incomplete, Trungpa is insightful and stimulating at times. Despite the book’s shortcomings, Western practitioners will find food for thought here.

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Buddhists speak on Occupy Wall Street

Thanks to Maia Duerr and the follow-up comments on a post on her blog, the Jizo Chronicles, here’s a quick round-up of some of the recent posts that Buddhists have made on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

  • There’s a post by Maia herself, along with Roshi Joan Halifax: “This is What Compassion Looks Like.”
  • Nathan Thompson has post on “Occupy Minnesota: Zen Style” on his blog, Dangerous Harvests where he describes “coming out” as a Zen Buddhist at a peaceful protest.
  • Chris Wilson, president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship board of directors, compares OWS to the Arab Spring and asks why engaged Buddhists should get involves. Chris states that BPF endorses OWS, “based on our agreement that the influence of money in politics is blocking many of the social justice and environmental goals that BPF promotes.”
  • In “We Are the 100%,” Ari Pliskin of the Zen Peacemakers offers a “mindful response” to OWS: “We Are the 100%.” Drawing on the precepts and particularly this one: “When peacemakers vow to be oneness, there is no Other,” Ari’s piece makes the case for a non-dualistic view of the current situation.
  • Madrone Phoenix is a dharma practitioner based in Providence, RI. In “Waking Up From the American Dream” she shares her experience visiting OWS in New York last week, and she reflects on her earlier experiences as an “angry activist” and how her Buddhist practice over the past few years has impacted her way of being involved in this movement.
  • Michael Stone, a yoga and meditation teacher based in Toronto, also visited NYC last week. He offers his perspective in an article titled, “Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street.”
  • Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Marselean Manuel is past executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Zen priest based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In “Un-Occupy the Land” she notes the troublesome connotations of the word, “occupy.” She writes, “The word brought up visions of invasion, people marching in to take over. I also saw a consciousness of us holding down specific territories (turfing) that seems to persist as the way to conquer.”
  • The Rev. James Ford, who is both a Unitarian Universalist minister and a Zen priest, begins his piece by echoing the words of Harvey Milk: “I’m here to recruit you.” In his piece, “An American Autumn: A Yom Kippur Meditation,” he says, “Sometimes you have to be outside. Sometimes you have to stand up. And sometimes you have to shout. You have to make demands that may be uncomfortable to the status quo. The Vietnam war ended for many reasons, but one principal among them were the people willing to mass together, take some tear gas, and bear witness to another way.”
  • Meredith Arena on the Interdependence Project site, has written “Politics and Practice: How we Face Social Injustice. Occupy Wall Street.” She writes, “Regardless of my ambivalence about how-why-when-where-who, sometimes you just have to SHOW UP.”
  • And on this site we have already brought you “The Buddha and Occupy Wall Street” and “Robert Thurman talks at Occupy Wall Street.”

Please let us know in the comments of any other posts you come across.

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The Buddha and Occupy Wall Street

The Buddha and King Bimbisara

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.” [1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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[4] 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.[5]

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,[6] 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 incumbent 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.

4. DN 5.

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.

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Buddhists, education, and money

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey on religion, education, and money was covered in a recent NYT article. The article was titled Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?, which is probably misleading because it doesn’t seem that the survey could possibly indicate whether educational attainment and family income were the result of people’s religious affiliations, or vice versa. Other issues might also be at work, such as geographic ones. If you’re in a poor, rural area there’s probably not likely to be a Buddhist temple handy, but there may well be a Baptist church.

Despite all this, the data are fascinating. As the NYT report says:

The most affluent of the major religions — including secularism — is Reform Judaism. Sixty-seven percent of Reform Jewish households made more than $75,000 a year at the time the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life collected the data, compared with only 31 percent of the population as a whole. Hindus were second, at 65 percent, and Conservative Jews were third, at 57 percent.

On the other end are Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. In each case, 20 percent or fewer of followers made at least $75,000.

As an aside, I find myself wishing that my Jewish ancestors hadn’t converted, although none of them seemed to have much luck with money anyway and those that made the most money did it in ways that ended up with them also earning hefty prison sentences.

The graph makes more or less a straight line, showing a strong correlation between education and income, with a few outliers. In the middle we have Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Unitarians, who are all modestly less well off than you might exist, and right at the end the most highly educated religion — Hindus — are still the richest, but despite their educational attainments they’re less rich than you would expect.

What does this tell us about Buddhists? Apart from the obvious facts that they’re considerably better educated than average, and that given that level of education they are less well-off than might be expected, there’s little that can be said definitively. Apart from anything else, who are America’s Buddhists? There tends to be a rather sharp divide between America’s “ethnic Buddhists” — immigrants from Asia or their descendants — and so-called “Western Buddhists.” It’s not clear what the relative sizes of the two populations are, but it’s conceivable that Asian-American Buddhists (who are also Western Buddhists, surely?) constitute at least half of the total Buddhist community in the US.

Often the two groups practice very different kinds of Buddhism, and for very different reasons. And there’s a tendency for the two groups to be separate. They may practice in different languages and in different places (temples versus “Buddhist Centers”) Even in publications the two communities are separated. Arun Likhati has kept an “Asian Meter” for the popular magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He’s found that Tricycle consistently under-represents Asian Buddhists in its pages.

Nevertheless, the two communities may have much in common as regards education. Asian families, including Buddhist Asian families — tend to value education highly. Coming from another direction, European-Americans who are highly educated are often less interested in traditional religion, and more open to other spiritual paths, including Buddhism. That covers the finding that Buddhists in the US (from both groups) tend to be generally highly educated, but what about their being less affluent than you might expect?

There’s no hard data available. The study focuses on annual income, so its findings tell us nothing about whether Buddhists are giving more or their money away. All we know is that fewer of them earn over $75,000 a year. The NYT article states that “some religions are more likely to produce, or to attract, people who voluntarily choose lower-paying jobs, like teaching.” They don’t back that statement up with any data, but I think both parts — “produce” and “attract” — are true.

But I think that it’s more the case that Buddhism “attracts” well-educated people who are in social work, teaching, alternative health professions, and social work. Why do I think that? This is purely anecdotal, of course, but I meet a lot of those sorts of people at Buddhist centers. And it seems to me that those are the professions people hold when they first walk through the door. Westerners aren’t, on the whole embracing Buddhism as stock traders and Fortune 500 executives and then taking up high-school teaching because Buddhism somehow encourages this. Rather, high-school teachers (and people in other less highly paid occupations) are embracing Buddhism. Sometimes — perhaps it’s most often — this is because they’re stressed and start by taking up meditation in order to relax, and this is followed by a deeper exploration of Buddhist practice. Buddhism may be more acceptable to many people because it can be viewed as a more “rational” system of personal development rather than as a belief-oriented religion. It may also be attractive because it is perceived as a religion of compassion, which is presumably a plus factor if you’re a teacher or social worker or nurse because you want to help people.

Once Westerners have converted to Buddhism, however, I think they do on the whole tend to be less invested in consumerism, and this may lead to them not pursuing promotion, or otherwise moving to higher paid jobs. Again, this is just my anecdotal take, based on my perceptions of the people I’ve encountered in Buddhist centers. So I do think there’s an element of Buddhists “voluntarily choosing lower-paying jobs,” but it’s a secondary aspect. It’s more that people who are highly educated who have already chosen lower-paid jobs are more attracted to Buddhism in the first place.

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Meditation on money, mindfulness and motorcycles

Piggy bank looking like it's about to eat some coins

As a proponent of living mindfully and with a desire to bring mindfulness into my daily life in terms of: communication, work, family life, friendship, abundance, skillfulness and simplicity I have been thinking about mindfulness and money. I’ll write about the motorcycle in a bit.

I grew up with parents who wanted me to “understand the value of a dollar” and to “work for what I got”. These messages have been deeply ingrained. As a result, I have worked hard and believed what I have should be a result of the work I performed, so I had difficulty accepting gifts, especially gifts of money.

That being said, I do desire material things. I like to live in a place that is visually pleasing, preferably near a pond and surrounded by hemlock trees. I like to dress in clothing that is made well and is flattering.

I like to drive my Subaru because I live where winter is long and snowy and driving a Subaru helps me to feel safe. But yesterday, while driving my Subaru, I saw what seemed to be so many Lexuses (Lexi?) and I had a deep desire to have one because as well as being safe when I drive, I like to drive a fast and powerful automobile.

Perhaps for you, it is a house by the ocean, a red Porsche convertible, traveling to exotic places, or a motorcycle you desire.

I love gourmet food and fine dining at restaurants with ambiance. I desire beauty in the form of art, crafts, music, film and dance so I indulge in going to museums, crafts fairs, concerts, movies and dance performances.

I enjoy being generous with my sons, my friends and family members. I am also aware that when I am with people who have more money than I do, I enjoy being treated to meals. I find I am more generous to some people than others. I wish I had more money to be more generous, especially with my sons.

I find, when it comes to being mindful about money I have more questions than answers. I have many questions:

  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I think about money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I spend money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the level of my generosity?
  • Why do I give to some people and causes more easily and liberally than others?
  • Why am I comfortable accepting gifts in certain situations and from certain people, and uncomfortable in other situations?
  • How do I assign value to what I purchase?
  • How does money fit in with living a life of simplicity?
  • Why is it so difficult to talk about money?
  • How does money fit with the way I feel about myself and others?
  • How do I feel about family members who withhold money?
  • What do I want to teach my children about money?
  • Why do I feel that when people have “a lot of money” their lives are “easier”?
  • Would I be happier if I had more money?

What I do not question, is the importance of being mindful when it comes to money. I do not question the importance I place on living simply even with my desire for material things. And I do not question the value I place on being generous no matter how much money I have.

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Ex-RAF officer who won his home back from a cult has spoken out for the first time

A former RAF officer persuaded to give his home to a spiritual healing centre has spoken out for the first time.

Richard Curtis, 53, won his house back last month after bringing a court case for undue influence against the Self-Realization Meditation Healing Centre.

The Somerset-based centre, a registered charity, is appealing against the ruling.

Mr Curtis, from Brecon, told the BBC’s Inside Out West programme he wants the law on charity donations to be changed.

He said: “I am fighting a battle not just for myself but for all the other people that have given all to god and guru and been left with nothing.”

‘Presumption of influence’

Mr Curtis had been a follower of the centre’s guru, Rena Denton, who goes by the name Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dharma.

A statement issued by the centre, which is run by a group of members called the Alpha-Omega family, said: “The court found only that the failure by Mr Curtis to seek independent legal advice meant…

Read the rest of this article…

See also: Ex-RAF man Richard Curtis’s fight to recover his home

that the presumption of influence could not be rebutted.

“This is a far cry from the allegations of brainwashing and cultism which Mr Curtis, and now the media, sought to portray.

“Since (2004) the centre has introduced a requirement that anyone wishing to donate to the centre must first seek independent legal advice.”

The centre, based in Queen Camel, near Yeovil, has lodged an appeal against the High Court judgement that its “undue influence” had been present when Mr Curtis signed a declaration of trust gifting the family home in Edwinsford near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, in 2004.

“We didn’t seek legal advice, because we were enraptured,” said Mr Curtis.

“We had a guru working with us and for us who had a direct link to god. What she said was good enough at the time.”

An investigation by Inside Out West has uncovered a number of similar complaints made against the centre by former members.

‘Significant concern’
Lizzie Davies, from Bath, was given an out-of-court settlement for £690,000 by the centre in 1996 after she claimed she had handed over her savings to the centre while under undue influence.

It accepted no liability in agreeing the settlement.

She said of her decision to leave the centre in 1993: “I had nothing. I had absolutely nothing and I found the courage to leave.”

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: “(In 1995/6), we identified areas of significant concern with the apparent lack of management control by the entire trustee body over the charity’s affairs.

“We advised that the trustees must ensure they have direct controls over all funds…and that the charity’s book-keeping be improved.”

The centre also has associated but independent organisations in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In 2003, Helen Williams left the centre in Christchurch with NZ$330 and a few personal belongings after agreeing to donate her property and savings to the centre.

She said: “I can only speak for the Christchurch centre but anyone throughout New Zealand who joined had to bring everything they owned.”

Alistair Mclean, of the Fundraising Standards Board, said: “The use of undue influence in soliciting donations from beneficiaries is quite simply unacceptable.”

The full story features on Inside Out West on BBC One in the west of England and on X-Ray on BBC1 Wales at 1930 GMT on Monday.

The programme will also be available in the UK on the BBC’s iPlayer for seven days.

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