From Buddhist economics to a new Dharma polities

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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 V

Critchley goes on to argue ‘for the efficiency of infinite ethical demands for a politics of resistance’ (ibid). This evokes an image and a myth for many Buddhists – particularly, perhaps, those in our movement; it is, in a way, the founding myth of our Order, a myth that Sangharakshita says is ‘not just a figure of speech. We should take it very seriously, even take it literally’ (Subhuti 2011, p.14): that of the mythic figure of Avalokitesvara, who made the following vow before his teacher Amitabha: ‘May I have the opportunity to establish all living beings in happiness… Until I relieve all living beings, may I never, even for a moment, feel like giving up the purpose of others for my own peace and happiness. If I should ever think of my own happiness, may my head be cracked into ten pieces…and may my body be split into a thousand pieces…’ (Wangyal 1978, pp.60–1).

Momentarily losing heart, Avalokitesvara’s vow is dramatically enacted: his head and body are shattered. Blessing the fragments, Amitabha transfigures the ten pieces of the head into ten faces and the thousand parts of the body into a thousand hands, each with its own wisdom-eye. Were that to be the end of the story then it would resemble, metaphorically, Critchley’s ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility’, a leaderless, consensual movement working collectively to alleviate suffering. Yet the conclusion of the myth is the placing, on the crown of the ten-faced head, of Amitabha himself, radiating ‘boundless, inconceivable light.’ It is easy, in our society, with its intensifying cult of the individual, to forget this part, this hierarchical dimension. What it communicates is that, without the objective, transcendent dimension – the lodestar that Nietzsche so chillingly diagnosed the disappearance of – then all we are left with is a more and more refined material self-interest to underpin our collective economic life.

It is an image that transcends the poles of individualism and communitarianism, of hierarchy and egalitarianism; it is a myth – when applied to the Order and movement – of proximity, intimacy, and collectivity – something that two of three Cs that can be taken as our founding mission sought to engender: co-operatives and residential spiritual communities were, as Vadddhaka indicates, an exercise in living and working intensively together as Dharma-farers, with the third C – the Buddhist centre – as both playground and place of practice.

This myth, then, of Avalokitesvara – in all its dimensions, resonances and symbolism – embodies the vision that Vaddhaka, a Buddhist with a rare grasp of economics, so skilfully evokes in his instructive book. In arguing for ‘a different form of economic organization, one that combines thoughtful self-interest and the creative energy and dynamism in capitalism with the values of generosity and altruism’ (p.7), and for ‘a middle ground between the two extremes of market fundamentalism and state totalitarianism’ (p.206), Vaddhaka is making the case (contra Žižek) for a radical middle-way economics as part of the emergence of a new, collective, culture in the service of a higher purpose, and for the crucial contribution that we, as Buddhists, can make to bringing it about.

One Response to “From Buddhist economics to a new Dharma polities”

  1. Saddhabhaya says:

    Thanks for your efforts and for sharing this

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