One of the powerful benefits of acquiring a Buddhist perspective is the application of that perspective to an understanding of current events. What to make of the Occupy Movement, for example, from a Buddhist point of view?
I could pick any number of Buddhist doctrines, but I’ll stick with basics: the “Three Poisons.” The Three Poisons are greed, hatred, and delusion. In Buddhism, these unskillful qualities are the product of two things: ignorance about the true nature of existence, and grasping after a false nature of existence in search of happiness.
While certainly not free from greed, the individuals in the Occupy Movement are collectively calling out the unfathomable greed of the financial institutions embodied by Wall Street. They are also calling out the equally greedy politicians who are paid to do the bidding of Wall Street. These greedy cohorts—in their ignorance of the true nature of happiness—seek an unobtainable, lasting happiness by grasping after grotesque sums of money and limitless power.
The second poison of hatred is clearly evident in the criticism leveled at the Occupy Movement. Castigated as dirty hippies, jobless freaks, or lazy-good-for-nothings that leach off welfare, the Occupiers are hated by others of the “99%” who are also suffering under the yoke of a corrupt and imperial “corporatocracy.” I read a recent Facebook posting by a Marine serving in Afghanistan; it spewed hateful contempt at Occupy Wall Street: “I’m occupying Bagram for you, a**hole! Put down your dope, get off your a**, take a shower, and get a job!”
A Buddhist analysis of such anger points the finger at ego-identification as a probable cause. For Buddhists, unexamined belief in a fixed, permanent ego-self is a cause of suffering. A Marine is embedded in a culture and context that values duty, loyalty, and fidelity. He answers the call to duty in his willingness to place himself in danger; he answers the call of loyalty to the United States by living up to his commitment to serve, even kill; he answers the call of “Semper Fi” by unswerving dedication to the welfare of his platoon members.
And the Occupiers? Instead of being dutiful cogs in a corrupt economic and political system, instead of loyalty to the myth of the American Dream, and instead of faithful consumerism and consumption, the Occupiers challenge the fundamental nature of the very system the Marine is sworn to defend. If the Marine has a strong ego-identification with the military values of duty, loyalty, and faithfulness, the allegiance of the Occupiers to a different set of values may become a threat. I speculate that accepting the view of the Occupiers may set up a cognitive dissonance in the Marine that would be dangerous on the battlefield. His deep aversion to the Occupiers may arise, then, as a misguided, psychic survival strategy or—at the very least—a form of futile ego protection.
The third poison is delusion. What Occupiers have done well is to question the delusions surrounding our financial and political crisis. Occupiers have given loud voice in calling out delusions known for years by thoughtful critics and bloggers marginalized by traditional media. These delusions include the ideas that: failed and corrupt banks should be bailed out at public expense; the way out of overwhelming debt is more debt; and that we can grow our way out of increasing resource contraction while exporting jobs and profits overseas. Occupiers routinely prick the bubble of these and other delusions. They are a persistent voice for seeing things just as they are. For Buddhists, learning how to consistently see things just as they are is an essential part of liberation.
From a Buddhist perspective, support for these widely-held delusions resides in ignorance and grasping. The bankers have an irrational belief in the permanent capacity of the financial system to generate something for nothing with no risk involved. The big banks are counting on a delusional hope in business-as-usual to permit the satisfaction of their greed. The bankers and politicians grasp after permanence and the promise of happiness they believe comes from amassing money and power. One of the marks of existence for Buddhists is impermanence. Events arise by interdependent causes and conditions, and when the conditions change, the event will fade away. Bankers do not understand this. In their calculations, the debt bubble will never burst. Their ignorant belief in—and unskillful search for—permanence will lead to continued suffering.
Greed, hatred, and delusion. The Three Poisons are a useful guide for understanding the Occupy Movement, the object of its protest, and its critics. If one is sympathetic to the Occupiers and prone to vilify the bankers and politicians, however, another Buddhist doctrine will be most useful: dukkha, the doctrine of suffering. Buddhists teach that we are all born into the grasping and ignorance so evident in the bankers and politicians. No one is born exempt; we are all filled—to one degree or another—with the Three Poisons and suffer as a result. But each one of us has the capacity to wake up, see things clearly, and live a life grounded in wisdom and compassion. Every Buddhist tradition has a path to such liberation. But until awakening or liberation is achieved, the only difference between the so-called 99% and the greedy elite 1%—in regards to the Three Poisons—is one of scale. I am also prone to greed, hatred, and delusion.
Knowing, therefore, that I am not fully-liberated and that I do not fully see the world clearly or live in it just as it is, I am compelled to feel compassion for the bankers and politicians. There—but for the grace of the Buddha’s teaching, the Dharma of Liberation—go I!