Three soldiers are walking side by side in front of me. Their machine guns are held at waist height, ready to fire, as they proceed at a measured pace scanning to left and right. Passers by don’t seem unduly bothered and continue to mill through the arcades selling sunglasses and iPads, Gucci bags and whisky. Tousle-haired models look out of the posters, with the expressionless gaze that is the norm for a perfume advertisement. A voice calmly reiterates the security protocols over the P.A. It’s a normal day in Orly Airport, Paris; but change the language and it could be Heathrow.
I was returning to Britain after teaching a retreat at a priory near Chartres. France has been repeatedly hammered by terrorist attacks over the past couple of years, and along with the shock of sudden deadly violence in the public domain another perception hovers, at least in my mind. It forms around a question: how do you prevent someone who is intent on destroying other people, from doing so? What can the state do to prevent someone jumping into a truck and mowing down more than 50 people, especially when they have no concern about losing their own life? And after the question comes an image of the modern state: insecure despite its intelligence agencies and surveillance technology; fronted by well-dressed people juggling with the economy; with policies that transfer public ownership to the private sector and so disown the people; conferences and assemblies to discuss world affairs – and that achieve little in the eyes of the general public. Hence disillusionment and resentment are rife.
The campaigns of dissent
A couple of months prior to my visit to France, a referendum in Britain had resulted in a majority (among those who voted) to leave the European Union. It was a shock to many, after a campaign in which the leaders of all major political parties (including the heads of other states) and the leaders of the business community had all repeatedly and in great detail presented argument after argument in favour of remaining within the Union. There may have been sound reasons for leaving the EU, but they didn’t feature in the speeches. Instead the Leave campaign produced misleading statistics, presented caricatures of European bureaucrats siphoning money out of British coffers, and played on concerns about immigration using stereotypes, fake images and a few stirring slogans: ‘Take Back Control’, ‘We’ve had enough of experts.’ The atmosphere around the topic became increasingly heated and dramatic, one pro-Remain MP was murdered in the street by a man who did it ‘for the sake of Britain’ (and whose house was full of Nazi regalia) – and yet, against the opinion of the polls, the Leave campaign won.
A couple of months after my visit to France, a similar atmosphere and style of contest took place in the USA, with a similar result. Again, the candidate who used reason and had experience in government was pitted against a candidate who made wild claims, spoke aggressively and had such low ethical standards that the elders of his own party disowned him. And, against all the predictions, Donald Trump won the Presidential election. The secret? A nationalist-imperialist slogan: ‘Make America Great Again’, blame for the decline of the national good placed on minorities and immigrants, and a tuning in to the frustration and anti-establishment anger of the people.
I can of course be accused of misrepresenting the facts, because now we’re in the era of post-truth politics and post-truth media, so what does anyone really know? However, putting aside the policies that the candidates stood for (and which generally shift after the election anyway) there are common features that seem to emerge. One was that the winning move was an appeal to anger and frustration. Defiance of the global order and scapegoating of minorities were rife (and produced a rise in violent crime against minorities after the triumph). Rhetoric and demagoguery were to the fore. Nationalist interests triumphed over international cooperation. And many people disagreed with the results so strongly that they took to the streets in protest. So the ‘United’ of the USA or the UK (and even the ‘Union’ of Europe) seems manifestly untrue. Of course; true unity can’t arise through an act of law, it requires a sense of mutuality, of sharing and giving and working together that is lacking in the economic model that governs these states – because that model is based on competition and accumulation of wealth. And so it moves towards inequality; inequality (and lack of having enough) give it momentum. Moreover those who can get work done for the lowest wages will accumulate most wealth and grow; so the ideal option is to use people who will work for least – or even better, have an unpaid machine do the work. Hence automation is the trend. This is 'economic development': it creates inequality and poverty; and hence insecurity and discontent; it can’t return or progress to some imagined golden age.
To quote from a recent article by James Livingston, Professor of History, Rutgers University:
'The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit ...
Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.'(1)
To add to that, a recent report offered the statistic that one in eight of the people who are working in Britain are living below the poverty line. In other words, even when we're working, the system isn't working. And so the promises of making America Great Again are empty. Especially as it takes big money (and all that entails) to get elected. As for Brexit: as fears of its impact cause the pound to fall, the price of imported food is rising ... and a new acronym is born for a swathe of society – 'jam' = 'just about managing'. So, at least in terms of the economic aims that directed them, these campaigns will fail. What happens then is uncertain, but we are in divisive times. If this situation isn’t correctly addressed, the anger and antipathy that has been channelled in these campaigns will need another target: creating an enemy is always an option. More riot police, more soldiers, more bombs.
Meet the shock
Currently I’m teaching another retreat, this one in the USA. I arrived to a Dhamma centre in a state of shock, with it’s ethos of non-abuse, care for the environment and inclusivity of racial and sexual diversity threatened by a movement that drove unabashedly against those standards and won the governance of the nation. So what do I say? As usual, one states the obvious. Which is, that when stability falls away, when there is disorientation and division, people either collapse, panic, go berserk – or cooperate. And as the world is essentially unstable, the only way forward for humans, ever, is to establish mutuality. The Buddha’s Dhamma, the way to liberation begins with touching into just this: ‘Associating with good people, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma … fills up careful attention … fills up the three kinds of good conduct … fill up true knowledge and liberation.’ (A.10, 61) In other words, it’s within qualities that support skilful mutuality that the intelligence that leads to the end of suffering first manifests. And how do you find good people? ‘Start by being one’ has to be the pragmatic response.
Consequently, the response has to be initiated by those who know how to meet suffering with compassion. People are justified in feeling threatened by foreigners: terrorists claiming that their actions are an Islamic mission have had their effect – although that statement can be countered by acknowledging that having one’s country bombed by the forces of Western democracy has also played its part. Losing one’s job and livelihood is a condition that can arouse resentment towards those who have jobs, and to the global trade deals that have made it more economical for corporations to source their workforce outside of their home base. Thus wanting to tear up the cooperative agreements and the open door policy seems to be a reasonable response. There are two sides to every story, etc, etc. So bridging the gap between those two sides takes work that is aimed purely at that.
The Western Dhamma movement has made much of mindfulness as an effective remedy for all kinds of human disorder. However, for the Buddha mindfulness was only ever one factor among many. It seems nowadays that disorder has to be addressed through right speech, right action and right livelihood.
‘He gives up false speech and refrains from false speech; he speaks the truth, is reliable, firm, trustworthy and does not deceive people. He gives up malicious talk and abstains from malicious talk; if he has heard something in one place, he will not spread it to another to cause disharmony - or if he has heard something in the other place he will not spread it to the first place to cause disharmony in the first place. In this way, he becomes either a conciliator of disputants, or an encourager of friends. He rejoices in peace, delights in peace and speaks words that make for peace. He gives up unkind talk and refrains from unkind talk; but such words as are gentle, pleasing to many people, such words he will speak. He gives up idle gossip and refrains from idle gossip; he speaks at the right time, he speaks in accordance with truth, he speaks what is useful … at a suitable time he will speak words that are worth remembering, well-grounded, purposeful and profitable.’ (A.5, 99)
I would say that the starting place for right speech occurs before one even utters a word. It requires right listening, principally to those one disagrees with; not to agree, or disagree, but to let the other person know that they have been heard. In other words, aim to establish mutuality before the rights and wrongs.
The basis of concord is mutuality
And right listening? That requires faith, the openness to trust listening – to one’s own mind and one’s very presence – to be the essential beginning of any endeavour. By hearing the only thing one can really know for sure, one establishes open and unbiased attention. That’s the basis for listening to another. And from listening to another, mutuality gets established; we really 'get' each other. Although we can't know what the result will be, and aren't trying to arrive at a solution, yet through establishing respect for mutual presence, negative conditions wane and supportive conditions arise.
After the retreat in France one of the retreatants unwittingly offered a couple of examples. His work was with providing support for homeless people, and one of the actions that he undertook as part of a group was to spend a weekend living on the street. ‘Street retreats’ they called them; entering the position of the homeless. An act of solidarity, a sharing of the predicament. In an unplanned way, it brought forth offers of food from shopkeepers, and who knows what effects in other people's minds. But even more powerful was his participation in the Auschwitz gatherings, where people from all over the world gather in this place where humanity seemed to stop altogether. They come to meet in silence, to remember, to meditate and to pray; above all to re-establish empathy. The bonding is transpersonal, transnational, transreligious: where we have no nation, no ideology, no job, no home, only presence remains. It’s our final and powerful security. And when we find that, there is a base for empathy, and from empathy, mutuality, and from mutuality, ethical sensitivity and good will … and so on.
So a quiet revolution is needed, one that is based on sharing and rebuilding the community. Such a change would reset the economy as the ‘house-keeper’ of our livelihood, using a simple means of exchange – my service, your goods; my healing skills, your building know-how. And rather than spend billions on the aggression and distraction industries, why not just give people the basic requisites? That's the basis of the monastic sangha: everyone shares and everyone contributes – because they enjoy and respect honest community. In this model, whatever there is goes round, and is therefore enough – because sharing is for all our welfare, happiness and security. What else is really important?
In the words of E.F. Schumacher:
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence …
Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. (2)
1 James Livingston: Aeon Magazine, November 2016 https://aeon.co/essays/what-if-jobs-are-not-the-solution-but-the-problem
2 E.F.Schumacher: Small is Beautiful Blond & Briggs (1973-2010), HarperCollins (2010-present)P58-59