are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Postby JKhedrup » Mon May 06, 2013 11:04 am

In 2002, after twenty consecutive years in Asia, I returned to the United States to live. In the U.S. I had much easier access to the internet than I ever had in Asia, where my use of the new technology was pretty much limited to answering emails. Now I could check out websites providing in-depth coverage of global events, and read articles exploring these issues from a progressive perspective. At the same time, I also had the opportunity to observe close-up how Buddhism was being assimilated in this country. One thing that struck me, and deeply troubled me, was a perceptible disconnect between the reckless courses along which the world was careening and the complacent, almost self-absorbed attitudes I detected among many American Buddhists.

It seemed to me that many middle-class American Buddhists understood the “noble truth of suffering” largely in terms of their own individual hangups—the ennui of material prosperity, the stress of unfulfilling relationships, discontent with their personal foibles. Outside the fold of “Engaged Buddhism” many seemed barely aware of the misery that overwhelmed some ninety percent of the world’s population—misery due to poverty, tyrannical regimes, social oppression, militarism, and economic globalization

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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby shaunc » Mon May 06, 2013 11:39 am

From my perspective I'd have to agree. Many years ago, I suffered from alcoholism, recovering from that disease/problem became the main focus of my life. It became my suffering. About 13 years ago I travelled to SE Asia, the Philippines to be exact, it was there that my eyes were opened, I saw poverty, sickness, hunger & suffering like I'd never seen it before. I also saw family values, generosity & gratitude like I'd never seen it before. It was there that I met my wife. Since that first visit I've been back 3 more times, We pay for the education of 3 girls (which in a country of 80 million makes a difference of approximately sweet FA) & have helped different members of our extended family buy livestock & engage in some small business ventures. The biggest difference we've made is that it made my problem seem so miniscule it didn't matter anymore.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Luke » Mon May 06, 2013 11:39 am

Great article! Thanks for sharing. Bhikkhu Bodhi is quite inspiring because of all he has achieved.

Here is another paragraphy from that article which I found interesting:
"Occasionally I would glance to the side to see how other religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were responding to the suffering caused by economic exploitation and social injustice. I could not help observing that they often showed a more acute sense of social conscience than I could detect among my fellow American Buddhists. It occurred to me, with some dismay, that while Buddhism extols such qualities as loving-kindness and compassion, present-day Buddhists have tended to pursue these “other-regarding” virtues primarily as subjective meditative states rather than spurs to beneficent action."


I have often felt similarly. The charity organizations of other religions seem to accomplish more worldwide than Buddhist charities do.

********
On a different subject, on Bhikkhu Bodhi's website for his Buddhist Global Relief organization, it says that they are looking for volunteer web developers and graphic artists from anywhere in the world if any of you are interested (I don't have those skills).

http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/act ... eerOp.html
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon May 06, 2013 5:38 pm

Well, he admits:
My current ideas may not square perfectly with the Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy on which I was nurtured, but I feel that sometimes one must give priority to one’s deep intuitions over officially sanctioned norms, even when this causes some degree of internal friction.

So, maybe the complacency of western Buddhists has more to do with their 'Buddhistness' than their westernness.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby anjali » Mon May 06, 2013 6:14 pm

Interesting observations by Bhikku Bodhi. I'm reminded of the Four Immeasurables. There is often the notion that benevolence and compassion are expressed as the wish for other to be happy and free from suffering. I think what people tend to not focus on is that there is also an intention (motivating one to action) within each aspect. I personally like the notion of "think globally and act locally." It becomes an interesting question of what Buddhists are doing locally in the communities they live in to relieve suffering. Perhaps Western Buddhists are too focused on equanimity?
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon May 06, 2013 6:42 pm

One on level he's right, we can always do more than the (comparatively little) we do.

However in terms of "Western Buddhists" I have to wonder whether part of the issue is not lack of compassionate action, or lack of compassionate motivation, but simply the fact that we are not as well organized as the larger Abrahamic religions, effective charity obviously isn't just about motivation, but infrastructure plays a huge role. I'm really glad he created Buddhist Global relief..it seems like a great thing.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Jikan » Mon May 06, 2013 7:17 pm

dzogchungpa wrote:Well, he admits:
My current ideas may not square perfectly with the Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy on which I was nurtured, but I feel that sometimes one must give priority to one’s deep intuitions over officially sanctioned norms, even when this causes some degree of internal friction.

So, maybe the complacency of western Buddhists has more to do with their 'Buddhistness' than their westernness.


I took the opposite interpretation, from this:

It seemed to me that many middle-class American Buddhists understood the “noble truth of suffering” largely in terms of their own individual hangups—the ennui of material prosperity, the stress of unfulfilling relationships, discontent with their personal foibles. Outside the fold of “Engaged Buddhism” many seemed barely aware of the misery that overwhelmed some ninety percent of the world’s population—misery due to poverty, tyrannical regimes, social oppression, militarism, and economic globalization


I'd read Bikkhu Bodhi as saying that bourgeois anxiety has led many to simply ignore the obvious problems in the global south (the Bangladeshi factory collapse should have surprised no one), or that the media spectacle has just led people to pursue the wrong goals and take refuge in the wrong things.

Planet of Slums should be required reading.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon May 06, 2013 8:24 pm

I think it's quite likely that if one were to control for wealth, one would find that western and eastern Buddhists are more or less equally complacent, not that that really makes much sense. Perhaps the thread should be titled "Are wealthy Buddhists complacent?", and I think the answer would be "Yes, in most cases", but that doesn't seem to be a particularly noteworthy observation.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby anjali » Mon May 06, 2013 8:44 pm

Jikan wrote:I'd read Bikkhu Bodhi as saying that bourgeois anxiety has led many to simply ignore the obvious problems in the global south (the Bangladeshi factory collapse should have surprised no one), or that the media spectacle has just led people to pursue the wrong goals and take refuge in the wrong things.

Planet of Slums should be required reading.


Perhaps bourgeois westerners, with bourgeois Buddhists as a subset, do live oblivious to the incredible suffering of a major part of the world population. I'm not completely convinced of that. Although, I do think people have a natural tendency to be self-absorbed, whether they are Buddhist or otherwise. What I would be interested in knowing is how western Buddhists deal with the suffering they encounter in their daily lives--in their homes, their workplaces, their communities.

Anecdotally, I teach at a community college geared to working adults in a rural part of the US. The struggles and tragedies I hear from my students is enough to crack the hardest heart. Often times all I can do is just listen to their plight and give them understanding. (Recently I listened to the story of a 45 years old, battered woman, now divorced, with almost no possessions or finances, having to move back in with her mother and return to school to learn marketable skills. Because of court dates, she has had a sporadic class attendance, and I have had to work with her to give her time to complete assignments--helping her to build successes and boost self-esteem again.) Also, I have been a hospice volunteer until recently. No doubt there are lots of members here who have done wonderful humanitarian service.

So, what is the point of these comments? I wouldn't judge western Buddhists by their participation, or even full awareness of global conditions per se. I would tend to take a closer look at how they chose to work with the particulars of suffering around them in their daily lives and immediate environment. By the way, this in no way is meant to detract for global relief efforts!
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby black_tea » Mon May 06, 2013 9:27 pm

Buddhism doesn't have as long a history in the west as the other faiths mentioned. Christianity and Judaism, for example, have had lot of time to set organize huminitarian efforts. For example, the synagogue I went to for awhile set up many opportunities to volunteer in the community, but this was a large very well established place that had a lot of different programs. A small local dharma center very well may not have that kind of structure set up. Having those opportunities easity available I'm sure helps a great deal -- there maybe people out there who would be willing to do more, but may not be sure how to go about it.

Also, what is being compared to what specifically? Buddhist charitable organizations vs say, Christian ones or the efforts made by individual Buddhists and individual Christians, and how exactly is this being measured? People can give to charity and/or volunteer outside of their religious organization. Also are we looking at larger global relief efforts, or more local volunteerism and charity? People may choose to use their resouces closer to home, and there's nothing wrong with that -- people need helpeverywhere. What about middle class Western Buddhists vs middle class Eastern Buddhists?

I don't want to downplay the truely heartbreaking conditions so many people are forced to endure, and it is admittedly all too easy to get wrapped up in one's own problems. However, at the same time I think in all fairness, there are a lot of factors to be considered.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon May 06, 2013 9:30 pm

I don't think that westerners don't notice suffering on an abstract level or are oblivious to it, no one is oblivious to suffering, because suffering doesn't depend on externals. I'd even say that a kind of self-aware middle class ennui regarding what to do about all the shit the rest of the world goes through is not uncommon at all with Buddhists - at least not in my experience.

Further, you can look around at some of these suffering people outside the of bourgeois we are talking about and see that in a genuine sense they are sometimes happier than than the bourgeois people. I grew up around poor mexican families that lived 8 to a small apartment and things like this, they were for the most always happier than the middle class white folk with more material means. That is not to say I think things should stay as they are, most certainly not...but we have to acknowledge that suffering transcends just material poverty as Buddhists, don't we?

I think it IS fair to say that many people are oblivious to our complicity in creating material poverty etc. for others, but then again it is hard to blame them. The problem is so large and seemingly insurmountable that it vexes the mind. And so, we end up with people doing little things like trying to be "green" here and there instead of things that might really bring lasting changes, I know that's an assumption on my part, but there ya go. There are alot of different approaches too, I love relief efforts and such, but in addition it seems like if we are going to address bourgeois complacency in suffering of others it would also by necessity involve a deep critique of our political lives and figuring out the causes and conditions of the world order that perpetuates sucking most of the world dry while we pamper ourselves and live under the illusion that somehow our country is "doing good' despite mixed actions that often speak to the contrary.

I've got no solution, what about you?
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Will » Mon May 06, 2013 10:33 pm

The Western tradition has always had a strong leaning to the 'outer'. We alter the physical environs to make it 'better'; usually that means more comfortable or enriching. The Orient has the opposite tendency, or at least had it.

Buddha addressed the root cause of poverty, and all other forms of suffering as mental or attitudinal - greed, anger & stupidity. Merely feeding the poor and sanitizing their slums is good and helpful, but not a real solution. We should do more along that line, but good works alone will not fix suffering.

Complacency, whether regarding suffering of others or our own weak, lazy forms of daily Dharma practice is pervasive. But in the long run, invigorating our practice will have the most benefit.

Of course, it is possible to make direct relief of physical suffering of others our main or only Dharma practice. But busyness in good works, over time, can be a powerful distraction from anything else.

So I guess the energy balance, for most of we rich, lazy folk should be around 80% vigorous inner practice and 20% strong outer service. But for some, whose minds will stay calm & compassionate it could be reversed to 80% outer & 20% inner.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon May 06, 2013 10:44 pm


So I guess the energy balance, for most of we rich, lazy folk should be around 80% vigorous inner practice and 20% strong outer service. But for some, whose minds will stay calm & compassionate it could be reversed to 80% outer & 20% inner.


This is really great.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Luke » Mon May 06, 2013 10:59 pm

anjali wrote:So, what is the point of these comments? I wouldn't judge western Buddhists by their participation, or even full awareness of global conditions per se. I would tend to take a closer look at how they chose to work with the particulars of suffering around them in their daily lives and immediate environment. By the way, this in no way is meant to detract for global relief efforts!

I agree. It is just as important to help people in your local community. Economic problems are just about everywhere these days, so people are suffering just about everywhere.

I think ordinary, but altruistic western Buddhists are often the hidden story of Buddhism in the west. They don't get included in a lot of the media about Buddhism. All we read about are these people who studied Asian languages at Princeton and then did many years of retreats in Nepal and then went to teach at Harvard, or we hear about amazing foreign Asian Buddhist monks. Ordinary western Buddhists aren't so exciting to read about, so they are mentioned less.

There should be some online Buddhist publication about ordinary western Buddhists and the issues they face, which would be in contrast to the usual ones which just target the yuppies. The elites and the people who are good at catering to the elites are usually the ones who control the Buddhist media.

Will wrote:Complacency, whether regarding suffering of others or our own weak, lazy forms of daily Dharma practice is pervasive. But in the long run, invigorating our practice will have the most benefit.

You have a point. When I don't meditate, I am much more likely to create suffering in others than I am to relieve it. Buddhist practice is the source of very many good qualities.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby retrofuturist » Tue May 07, 2013 5:45 am

Greetings,

Will wrote:The Western tradition has always had a strong leaning to the 'outer'. We alter the physical environs to make it 'better'; usually that means more comfortable or enriching. The Orient has the opposite tendency, or at least had it.

Buddha addressed the root cause of poverty, and all other forms of suffering as mental or attitudinal - greed, anger & stupidity. Merely feeding the poor and sanitizing their slums is good and helpful, but not a real solution. We should do more along that line, but good works alone will not fix suffering.

Complacency, whether regarding suffering of others or our own weak, lazy forms of daily Dharma practice is pervasive. But in the long run, invigorating our practice will have the most benefit.

Of course, it is possible to make direct relief of physical suffering of others our main or only Dharma practice. But busyness in good works, over time, can be a powerful distraction from anything else.

So I guess the energy balance, for most of we rich, lazy folk should be around 80% vigorous inner practice and 20% strong outer service. But for some, whose minds will stay calm & compassionate it could be reversed to 80% outer & 20% inner.

:good:

It is for this reason I suspect that Bhikkhu Bodhi may have taken bodhisattva vows (albeit within a Theravada framework) because it's clear through his recent emphasis on Engaged Buddhism over the past decade that he is not striving as directly as possible for Arahantship as per the model of practice found for bhikkhus in the Sutta Pitaka. His tendency towards crippling headaches may be a factor in this alignment towards social works, as it would make the cultivation of samatha (to support samma samadhi) more difficult.

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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby JKhedrup » Tue May 07, 2013 6:39 am

To me it is clear though that this orientation though has greatly benefitted the Theravada tradition!

Think of all the high quality translations Bhikkhu Bodhi has produced, which has perhaps done more to bring Theravada to the attention of the West than those who strive single-pointedly for liberation, even if that may be the ideal ;). (just sayin')

When I was in Thailand it was the translations of Bhikkhu Bodhi that made the Theravada tradition philosophically coherent to me. I would have been lost without them.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby seeker242 » Tue May 07, 2013 11:12 am

“Buddhist practice” was narrowly understood in terms of one’s personal meditation, which served a largely therapeutic function. It seemed Buddhism itself was being taken up as a path to personal fulfillment rather than a means of tackling the deepest roots of suffering both for oneself and for others.


I think Bikiku Bodhi need to get out more! Plenty of westerners don't act like that. Plenty of easterners do act like that. To say "Western Buddhists are 'like this' is a very narrow view of people.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby Indrajala » Wed May 08, 2013 7:26 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:That is not to say I think things should stay as they are, most certainly not...but we have to acknowledge that suffering transcends just material poverty as Buddhists, don't we?


The more I get to know people on the subcontinent, the more I realize their problems just mirror our own. When they're poor they have to endure the elements, hunger, exploitation and curable illnesses. When they've got money they suffer existential crises, domestic abuse, greed, diseases of affluence (obesity, diabetes, etc.) and all the mental unease that accompanies luxury. So, the poor suffer physically, but maybe not as much mentally when compared to the well-to-do. The well-to-do on the other hand have luxuries and physical comforts, but suffer mentally.

Here's a relevant quote:

    For the privileged, pain is mental;
    For the common people, it is physical.
    Day after day both types of pain
    Afflict this world.

-Four Hundred Stanzas


So, reading this...

Outside the fold of “Engaged Buddhism” many seemed barely aware of the misery that overwhelmed some ninety percent of the world’s population—misery due to poverty, tyrannical regimes, social oppression, militarism, and economic globalization


... I'm led to think it is naive to believe you can remedy the world's misery. If you gave everyone a first world standard of living and clean government, the planet's ecosystem and resource base would all the faster come apart (we've already overshot out resource base and are progressing towards collapse), and moreover people would just suffer mentally.

They'd have their long-term issues with unsatisfying careers and impersonal relationships, which is what you see in countries that went from rags to riches in the last few decades (Korea, Singapore and Japan illustrate this fact). They might not have to worry about tyranny, but then they'd worry about not getting into a good college or disappointing their family, or not keeping up with their peers in terms of outward material wealth (you need to bring a nice car to the meeting, not a taxi!).

One other thing that comes to mind is that tyrannical regimes and social oppression in much of the world is in place largely because it benefits certain powers, like the western alliance (NATO) and its client states. If OPEC wasn't protected by the west, those regimes would be torn apart in no time and suddenly the oil supplies wouldn't be so forthcoming. You can talk about freeing those people from oppression, but at the same time you need to realize if they get what you want them to get, you'll suddenly have a significant decrease in standard of living.

We might think the PRC government is awful, but nevertheless it is their enslavement of their own people that allows us to buy cheap consumer goods and live well on less money.

It basically boils down to this: you can't fix saṃsāra.

If you eliminate disease and hunger, populations soar and overpopulation does more damage to humanity AND the rest of life on the planet than disease and hunger could.

It is naive to think present unjust political arrangements, which ensure a segment of the global population gets to live good on the backs of the global poor, would be changed just because it might be just and right. The powers that be would be slitting their own throats in many cases and tossing their wealth away. The people who depend on such arrangements for their unearned share of the resource pie likewise are not going to cooperate if it means sacrificing any bit of their share.

Socially engaged Buddhism is simply naive and idealistic. They might do some good works, but then at the same time they are (we all are) part of a system ultimately which oppresses and exploits the poor and the environment. You might talk about recycling programs and then rely on nuclear and coal fired power plants to keep your computers running which coordinate the program. You might talk about freeing people from repressive governments, but those repressive governments ensure you get affordable oil to power your free clinics and soup kitchens.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby shaunc » Wed May 08, 2013 8:33 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:One on level he's right, we can always do more than the (comparatively little) we do.

However in terms of "Western Buddhists" I have to wonder whether part of the issue is not lack of compassionate action, or lack of compassionate motivation, but simply the fact that we are not as well organized as the larger Abrahamic religions, effective charity obviously isn't just about motivation, but infrastructure plays a huge role. I'm really glad he created Buddhist Global relief..it seems like a great thing.


You don't have to be that organised to help people. Obviously you can't tackle major projects but you can always lend a hand or donate to worthy causes.
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Re: are Western Buddhists complacent? article by Bhikkhu Bo

Postby shaunc » Wed May 08, 2013 8:39 am

Indrajala wrote:
Johnny Dangerous wrote:That is not to say I think things should stay as they are, most certainly not...but we have to acknowledge that suffering transcends just material poverty as Buddhists, don't we?


The more I get to know people on the subcontinent, the more I realize their problems just mirror our own. When they're poor they have to endure the elements, hunger, exploitation and curable illnesses. When they've got money they suffer existential crises, domestic abuse, greed, diseases of affluence (obesity, diabetes, etc.) and all the mental unease that accompanies luxury. So, the poor suffer physically, but maybe not as much mentally when compared to the well-to-do. The well-to-do on the other hand have luxuries and physical comforts, but suffer mentally.

Here's a relevant quote:

    For the privileged, pain is mental;
    For the common people, it is physical.
    Day after day both types of pain
    Afflict this world.

-Four Hundred Stanzas


So, reading this...

Outside the fold of “Engaged Buddhism” many seemed barely aware of the misery that overwhelmed some ninety percent of the world’s population—misery due to poverty, tyrannical regimes, social oppression, militarism, and economic globalization


... I'm led to think it is naive to believe you can remedy the world's misery. If you gave everyone a first world standard of living and clean government, the planet's ecosystem and resource base would all the faster come apart (we've already overshot out resource base and are progressing towards collapse), and moreover people would just suffer mentally.

They'd have their long-term issues with unsatisfying careers and impersonal relationships, which is what you see in countries that went from rags to riches in the last few decades (Korea, Singapore and Japan illustrate this fact). They might not have to worry about tyranny, but then they'd worry about not getting into a good college or disappointing their family, or not keeping up with their peers in terms of outward material wealth (you need to bring a nice car to the meeting, not a taxi!).

One other thing that comes to mind is that tyrannical regimes and social oppression in much of the world is in place largely because it benefits certain powers, like the western alliance (NATO) and its client states. If OPEC wasn't protected by the west, those regimes would be torn apart in no time and suddenly the oil supplies wouldn't be so forthcoming. You can talk about freeing those people from oppression, but at the same time you need to realize if they get what you want them to get, you'll suddenly have a significant decrease in standard of living.

We might think the PRC government is awful, but nevertheless it is their enslavement of their own people that allows us to buy cheap consumer goods and live well on less money.

It basically boils down to this: you can't fix saṃsāra.

If you eliminate disease and hunger, populations soar and overpopulation does more damage to humanity AND the rest of life on the planet than disease and hunger could.

It is naive to think present unjust political arrangements, which ensure a segment of the global population gets to live good on the backs of the global poor, would be changed just because it might be just and right. The powers that be would be slitting their own throats in many cases and tossing their wealth away. The people who depend on such arrangements for their unearned share of the resource pie likewise are not going to cooperate if it means sacrificing any bit of their share.

Socially engaged Buddhism is simply naive and idealistic. They might do some good works, but then at the same time they are (we all are) part of a system ultimately which oppresses and exploits the poor and the environment. You might talk about recycling programs and then rely on nuclear and coal fired power plants to keep your computers running which coordinate the program. You might talk about freeing people from repressive governments, but those repressive governments ensure you get affordable oil to power your free clinics and soup kitchens.


I'd have to agree with quite a bit of what you said, but just because you can't fix samsara doesn't mean that you can't have a go at taking the edge off it. Money may not make all these peoples problems go away but at least they'd be dealing with a better class of problem. It's better to be miserable with a certain degree of comfort than miserable without it.
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Joined: Fri Jan 11, 2013 8:10 am

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