From Buddhist economics to a new Dharma politics

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A review-article on Vaddhaka Linn’s, The Buddha on Wall Street, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, UK, 2015

First published at the Western Buddhist Review.

Part III

On 4 December 1978, Sangharakshita gave a lecture inaugurating the London Buddhist Centre, where I teach and practice. In it, he said that it:

…is not just another Buddhist centre, however big, it is not just a place where people can come along, once a week, or once a month or simply talk about Buddhism, simply discuss Buddhism, or where they can even come once a week or twice a month to listen to lectures, listen to talks given by people who have merely, who have simply read a lot of books about Buddhism. It is not intended to be that sort of place. And it is not even a place where one can come along occasionally and do what one might describe as a little therapeutic meditation… [We hope it] will serve a more noble function than that, a more radical, I might even say a more revolutionary function than that, just keeping people going, giving them their sort of meditational vitamins, so that they can stagger along the path of worldliness for a few more days or a few more weeks. (Sangharakshita 2000, p.1)

The centre was ‘to be nothing less than the nucleus of a New Society’ (ibid). Five months later, to the day, Margaret Thatcher swept to power, inaugurating a very different kind of revolution – one that continues to unfold. What chance a Buddhist revolution in the face of such force? Now, almost all of the ‘Right Means of Livelihood on a co-operative basis’ (p.3) that Sangharakshita spoke about on that occasion have closed, with few springing up to replace them. Even Windhorse:Evolution, the jewel in the crown, discussed by Vaddhaka in his chapter on work (pp.73–4), has closed in the short time since the book’s publication. As Vaddhaka indicates, ‘Fulfilling the ideal of the ‘new society’ has not always been easy’ (p.185). It has been more difficult, since the ’90s, for our movement to ‘sustain a consistent level of interest in participating in right livelihood businesses and in communities. The reasons for this are not clear, but it’s possible that the rising pressures of a consumerist society in the 1990s and 2000s have had an effect on the Buddhist community’ (ibid). Vishvapani concurs – to an extent – in his review of Vaddhaka’s book but thinks that we need to reconsider whether communities and team-based right livelihood businesses (as they became known – TBRLs) really offer a viable model for wider social change: ‘Not only have they not had that effect after four decades, engagement in them has declined considerably, even among very committed members of Triratna.’ Instead, Vishvapani says that the mainstream mindfulness movement ‘is what it looks like when Buddhism affects society on a mass scale,’ and asks, ‘how can we influence it?’.

My question would be, how have we influenced it? How have activities and practices that were previously at the fringe, such as mindfulness and well-being, ethical trading, organic produce and veganism, become part of the mainstream, other than through the concerted effort of movements such as our own? How could our practice of living and working together as committed Dharma-farers not have helped bring this quietly unfolding revolution into existence? Indeed, wouldn’t the fact of these activities and practices becoming more mainstream make it more difficult for our own businesses to survive, in the face of so much more competition!

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