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21st century Buddhism: Facing Institutionalized Suffering, Part 3

November 25, 2017

…we have a problem that the Buddha didn’t face, and this is institutionalized dukkha. Our economic system is institutionalized greed.

 In this installment of Matthias Luckwaldt’s interview with David Loy, David answers questions about the poisons, precepts and the Eightfold Path.  If you missed them, click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

When we talk about Buddhist ethics we usually look at the Three Poisons, the Five Precepts, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Do you feel that those concepts need a review?

All of those aspects need to incorporate a larger social dimension. I thought a lot about the Five Precepts and the Three Poisons because we have a problem that the Buddha didn’t face, and this is institutionalized dukkha. Our economic system is institutionalized greed. We can never consume enough, corporations are never profitable enough, their market share is never big enough. And I think this is a definition of greed.

At least in the United States, we institutionalized ill will with our militarism. The attitude towards refugees in the US and Europe is institutionalized ill will, and we have also institutionalized delusion through the media. [The media] are mostly corporations that are not interested in educating or informing us, but [want] to grab our attention. If we see how institutionalized the poisons are we can see what kind of social-economical problems we have today.

What I find exciting about that approach is that it’s a distinctive Buddhist angle on social theory, and not just accepting the Western way of thinking. It’s also a huge challenge, because it is hard enough to look at my own greed, ill will and delusion [without] figuring ways to come together with other like-minded people and address these huge institutional forms. We have to think about that and do something about that.

An important division of the Noble Eightfold Path is “right livelihood.” Since you talked a lot of economics, how do you understand “right livelihood” in 2017?

Both then and now we should not make our living based upon activities that cause suffering. Today it would apply to certain types of corporate activities, e.g., advertising. Most types of corporate advertising are inappropriate, because they encouraging a kind of consumerism which seems to be the new religion. A false religion that offers us alternative ways to become happy through buying stuff—except it never really does. And ways of jobs or employment that involve promoting consumerism and destroying the environment. Those are two good examples that stand out. As a consumer, on the other hand, we have the obligation to simplify our lives and withstand those temptations.

Recently you returned your honorary degree to Carleton College, because of the investment in fossil fuel companies.

As a Buddhist I am committed to engage Buddhist principles with the social and ecological challenges. Today no issue is more pressing than climate change, which is the most urgent aspect of an ecological crisis that threatens the survival of a large percentage of the earth’s species—perhaps including our own.

The final installment of Luckwaldt’s interview with David Loy is coming soon.

David Loy is a Sanbo Zen teacher and the bestselling author of a Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolutionand A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World

Matthias Luckwaldt is a freelance journalist and student of Religions and English and American Literature at the University of Hamburg. The Buddha Dharma helped Matthias to rediscover his Christian roots.

The content from this post was originally published in Quaker Universalist Voice, April 2017 as 21st century Buddhism: Facing institutionalized suffering, An interview with David R. Loy

Images: 1) Shopping by CarolCarter  2) Buddhist Dharma Wheel by MBGraffiX, Public Domain photos CC0 from
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