Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Tricycle is running another of it’s articles on “anger”, this time in connection to social inequality and activism for social justice. It portrays the Dalai Lama as having “marxist” inclinations because he talks about the injustice of exploitation and inequality. In fact, the Dalai Lama calls himself a marxist. My question is this: why does Tricycle always reduce the discussion to a dither about “anger”? Why do these discussions always end up talking about personal emotions? Why doesn’t the mainstream Buddhist media talk about the kind of broad-based strategies that are needed to dismantle social institutions that create and perpetuate exploitation and inequality? Is it only just about “feeling bad” about injustice, or “feeling good” that you did something about it? I would suggest that we use the dharma of non-self nature to get past the personal level of “feeling” this way or that about unjust social conditions and get to the collective level where we can take sustained collective action to transform them.
Although Tricycle typecasts the interview as a discussion about anger, if you read carefully, the Dalai Lama isn’t even concerned with anger, justifiable or otherwise. Rather, he makes a sweeping critical analysis of politics, industrialism, money, the financial sectors that create inequality and exploitation, and the kind of education and socialization required to correct these injustices.
In April 2006, the Japanese cultural anthropologist Noriyuki Ueda met the Dalai Lama for two days of conversation in Dharmasala, India. The discussion, recently translated from the Japanese text, covers such topics as the usefulness of anger, the role of compassion in society, and social and economic justice. “I believe that Buddhism has a big role to play in the world today,” Ueda tells His Holiness, “and I am impatient because Buddhists don’t seem to realize that.” In this interview, Ueda offers us a rare peek into the the political and economic mind of one of the world’s most famous spiritual leaders.
—Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor
I would like to discuss whether it is possible to construct an altruistic society, in which people take care of and help each other. Our modern educational system fails to provide sufficient education about compassion. The time has come to transform this whole system. Society is formed through its educational system, but the educational system does not transmit the deeper human values of compassion and kindness. Then all of society lives with this false view that leads to a superficial life, in which we live like machines that don’t need affection. We become part of that. We become like machines. That is because today’s society is based on money. A society that is based on money is aggressive, and those with power can bully and behave cruelly to others. This situation produces growing social unrest. A society that depends on money has problems that reflect its beliefs.
In reality, affection and compassion have no direct link with money. They cannot create money. Therefore, in a society in which money is the priority, people don’t take these values seriously anymore. People in positions of leadership, like politicians, have emerged from within a society that depends on money, so naturally they think like that and lead society further in that direction. In this kind of society, people who value affection and compassion are treated like fools, while those whose priority is making money become more and more arrogant.
I spent last year at Stanford University in California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where many wealthy people live. Yet in spite of their apparent wealth, people there don’t seem to be truly happy. Many suffer from stress and anxiety. This reality raises complicated questions for me. Material wealth does not necessarily bring true happiness. On the other hand, while it is good to be happy in the midst of poverty, poor countries have big problems.
On a macro scale, we must bridge the gap between rich and poor. Buddhists with deep faith seem happy within their communities, yet in the wider world that gap keeps getting bigger. People who are filled with affection and kindness and are not swept away by material desires are getting poorer, while those who are frustrated and recklessly pursue selfish benefits instead are getting richer. What do you think about this point? That is a different factor. Europeans had to think about industrialization and technology in order to survive. Countries like Portugal, Spain, England, France, and Belgium became colonial powers. These small countries became industrialized, obtained raw materials from other lands, used them to make products, and then began to sell those products back to other countries.
Eventually part of the population in Asia received a Western-style education, adopted a Western way of thinking, and imported Western technologies, which led to trade with Western countries. European colonization allowed business to expand to an international level. In Asian countries, one part of the population adopted Western ways of doing things and became rich, while those who still followed an ancient way of life remained poor. At a global level, the standard of living in industrialized nations rose to a much higher level than that of the exploited nations, and these nations became much more economically powerful. In those exploited nations, the few individuals who had the opportunity to adopt a Western way of life became wealthy, while peasants and villagers who preserved the same lifestyle they had for thousands of years remained poor.
One thing that particularly interests me is your use of the word “exploitation.” This is the second time you’ve used that word, and I am surprised since it is a left-wing, Marxist term. It’s true. I am also an exploiter. I hold the position of a high monk, a big lama. Unless I exercise self-restraint, there is every possibility for me to exploit others.
On my first visit to Mongolia, they arranged a tour to various institutions and a museum. At the museum, I saw a drawing of a lama with a huge mouth, eating up the people. This was in 1979, when Mongolia was still a Communist country. The Communists said that religion was a drug, and every religious institution was an exploiter. Even monks were exploiters. Even donations distributed to the monastic community were considered to be a form of exploitation.
When I came to the spot with that picture, the officials were a little bit nervous. I deliberately looked at it and I said, “It’s true.” Of course, I agree. I am not only a socialist but also a bit leftist, a communist. In terms of social economy theory, I am a Marxist. I think I am farther to the left than the Chinese leaders. [Bursts out laughing.] They are capitalists. [Laughs again.]
That’s true. [Bursts out laughing.] In the real world exploitation exists, and there is a great and unjust gap between rich and poor. My question is, from a Buddhist perspective, how should we deal with inequality and social injustice? Is it un-Buddhist to feel anger and indignation? When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent. Religious people must struggle to solve these problems.