Economic Injustice and Buddhist Teachings

A recent article by my online friend Maia Duerr, writing on the Turning Wheel Media site, addresses issues that are central to my own concerns recently: how do the Buddha’s teachings, and our practice, relate to the social, environmental and political problems that threaten to sink our society and indeed humanity?

This article focuses on Economic Injustice. Maia points out that the Buddha clearly gave his teachings a social dynamic:

We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when Shakyamuni Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in this collective context: “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

She goes on to point out that these social problems all have roots in our individual and collective ignorance of this interdependence, and the cravings and aversions that arise out of that ignorance.

(I would add again, the three poisons – rendered in the article as greed, anger, and delusion – I think are easier to understand as ignorance, attachment, and aversion. But that’s another post.)

Identifying racism, classism and corporate control of resources as some of the social manifestations of the three poisons, she says we’ll only begin to address these problems when we understand those roots.

As Thich Nhat Hanh suggested, when our practice begins to mature, we find ourselves ready to get up off the cushion and address the problems in front of us.

Mindfullness deconstructed

In a recent article posted on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship/Turning Wheel Media site, Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a vipassana teacher of the Mahasi lineage, deconstructs mindfulness practice, comparing the inner practice with the external practice of Marxism.

Vega-Frey says that most modern mindfulness practice is like the reformist version of socialism, whereas true Buddhist practice is comparable to the revolutionary approach favored by Karl Marx.

Essentially, the problem is – according to this author – that current fascination with meditation and mindfulness practices is aimed at using these to assist one along the path toward worldly success, rather than as a tool to transcend greed, anger and delusion – the three poisons. (Which are sometimes rendered as: ignorance, attachment, and aversion – perhaps a more accurate set of terms.)

The aspiration to attain worldly success through devotion is not at all new to Asian Buddhism but mindfulness-based meditation as an expression of it is new and seems to have parallel life throughout contemporary Asia as well. Thus, it is appears that this new phenomenon is not simply a cultural desalination program in the West that has turned the ocean of the Buddha’s teaching into vast warehouses of bottled water: It’s also a historical process of political economy, specifically, what Karl Marx termed the bourgeois relations of production.


But just as Marx did not call for harmony between classes as a response to the antagonisms at the root of bourgeois society, the Buddha did not call for a smoothing out of the rough edges of suffering or a negotiated peace with greed, hatred, and ignorance. He called for their complete usurpation, abolition, and annihilation by the forces of love and wisdom. He posited mindfulness as one essential tool for a process of disenchantment that illuminates the profoundly unstable, undependable, and disappointing nature of everything in existence: a revolutionary rather than reformist approach.

In the Satipatthana, Buddha explains the practice of the Four Foundations (or Establshiments) or Mindfulness as leading to a state where one finds oneself “…having gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this world.” This is the classic statement of the liberated mind. Certainly seems to me that the author is right in asserting that much of what goes on in the name of meditation these days has lost sight of that basic goal.

Vega-Frey continues:

… the inner revolution is not simply a matter of will-power but of committed ethical integrity, rigorous mind training, and deepening sensitivity to reality. Indeed, they often commit over many, many lifetimes, to cultivating wholesome mental qualities that will support them in the eventual overthrow of greed, hatred, and delusion. … Essential to this view is the understanding that the humility, kindness, and wisdom that come from this path are rewards of the practice in and of themselves and to look beyond them for our motivation, to external markers that satisfy our unexamined personal and social delusions, is folly. Keeping the north star of complete liberation always ahead of us is a fundamental part of staying on the path with integrity.

Even beyond this, Vega-Frey says that what’s like to happen is:

…the absolute bourgeoisification of mindfulness where the owning class and the bourgeois state try to use it as a tool for the reification of class dominance and imperialism.

If this sounds over-dramatic, consider another recent essay, “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which highlighted a $4.3 million grant the U.S. Army and Department of Defense has provided University of Miami researchers for a so-called “Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training” for pre-deployment soldiers as well as $31 million for a “positive psychology” program that will include mindfulness education for 1.1 million soldiers.

He concludes with this thought:

Part of me longs for the day when a study proves, once and for all, that mindfulness is entirely useless for anything beside the development of wisdom and kindness.

It’s a long but very thought-provoking article. I welcome responses.