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Listening to the Buddha: how greed, ill-will and delusion are poisoning our institutions, Part 1 of 3

January 11, 2016

All institutions are the mirror image of the motivations that make them work. So when politics and economics are based on the worst aspects of human nature, the inevitable result are societies riddled with inequality and violence.

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This article, written by David R. Loy, first appeared in Open Democracy on May 12, 2014.

As a Buddhist who’s passionate about social and political engagement, I’m fascinated by the contemporary relevance of Buddhist teaching. The Buddha didn’t say much about evil, but he often spoke about the three roots of evil or “three poisons” of greed, ill will, and delusion.

When what we do is motivated by these poisons, the inevitable result is dukkha: “suffering,” but not just suffering at the level of each individual.

All institutions are the mirror image of the motivations that make them work.

So when politics and economics are based on the worst aspects of human nature, the inevitable result are societies riddled with inequality and violence.

The Buddhist emphasis on motivation sheds new light on the key questions of our time: the destruction of the environment, the exploitation of human beings, and the use of deception to quell dissent and debate.

If institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion lie at the root of these problems, a radical transformation is called for. Nothing less will do. Our present economic system institutionalizes greed; our addiction to militarism institutionalizes ill will; and the corporate media institutionalize delusion.

If greed is defined as “never having enough,” then that also applies collectively: corporations are never large enough or profitable enough, their share value is never high enough, and our GNP is never big enough. In fact, we cannot imagine what “big enough” might be. Built into these systems is the belief that they must keep growing, or else they will collapse. But why is more always better if it can never be enough?

Who is responsible for this collective fixation on growth? All of us participate in one way or another, as employees, consumers, investors, and pensioners. The problem is that we rarely take personal responsibility for results that are collective: any awareness of what is happening tends to be diffused in the impersonal anonymity of the broader economic process.

Consider the stock market, high temple of the economic system. On one side are many millions of investors, mostly anonymous and unconcerned about the details of the companies in which they invest, except for their profitability and share price. If they invest in mutual funds, investors rarely know where their money is invested anyway.

On the other side of the market, the desires and expectations of those millions of investors become transformed into an unremitting pressure for growth and increased profitability that every CEO must respond to, preferably by maximizing short-term results. Even if the CEO of a large transnational corporation wants to reduce the company’s impact on climate change, for example, any action at the necessary scale will threaten corporate profits, and they will lose their job. Corporations are legally chartered so that their first responsibility is not to their employees or customers, or to the members of the societies in which they operate, or to the ecosystems of the earth, but to their stockholders, who with few exceptions are concerned only about returns on their investment.

Read Part 2 of Listening to the Buddha.

Image: Ada, by Mirjana Veljovic,  CC BY S-A 2.0, from Flickr.com
Featured Image: Arya Magga, by saamiblog, CC BY 2.0,  from Flickr.com

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