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Buddhism and the Budget

One of the headline figures from this week’s budget was George Osbourne’s much anticipated decision to scrap the 50p tax rate for the highest earners. Labour leader Ed Milliband responded by calling it ‘the “millionaires’ budget” which marked the end of the Government’s claim that “we are all in it together”. After today’s budget millions will be paying more while millionaires pay less,” he said.’ (BBC)

It left me wondering what, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is the problem – if any – with increasing economic inequality?

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level, their ground-breaking recent book, say that ‘greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity as we might in more equal settings, getting the measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen.’ They argue that this brings, in its wake, any number of societal problems.

The most equal setting that I think I have ever been in is my ordination retreat at Guhyaloka, three years ago. We handed over our passports and our money – strong symbols of our identity and status – and lived, for sixteen weeks, as a (mostly harmonious) spiritual community.

Manjuvajra, who co-led the retreat, had said that a lot could happen around the dining table, which was how it turned out. I am thinking, in particular, of one day when I was approaching the dining area, just before lunch or dinner, full of fears about how I was being perceived by my brothers on the course. Part of my own sensitivity to ‘social evaluative threats’ comes, I think, from having a mixed European / African background. As I was growing up in Norfolk, after moving there from London with my family, I was particularly prone to trying to work out which box people were putting me into: black or white, working class or middle class, country boy or city gent…the list goes on. I would often try and second guess others in this way, probably as a means of trying to stay safe. Being physically attacked on the basis of my mere appearance was, fortunately, extremely rare, but was not unknown to me.

It was with something of this sensitivity that I approached the Guhyaloka dining area. Within that context, though, and on the basis of the weeks of meditation, study, developing friendships and other Dharma practice, I noticed that actually it was me who was putting myself into those limiting boxes; it was not something that any of my brothers were doing to me. Seeing what I was choosing to do to myself, glimpsing, momentarily, how I had been limiting myself in this way, and that I had a choice about this, felt incredibly liberating.

Since then I have appropriated that moment to some extent, as though it was all down to me, my meditation practice, my creative responses. It is so easy to forget that this insight was gifted to me on the basis of the conditions of the society around me at that time: the radically simple – and equal – spiritual community of which I was a part. One reflection on the budget and on inequality, then, is this: unless we can create a society in which we really are “all in it together”, the possibility of making real spiritual progress will remain permanently closed to us.

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