The Dissident
Donate | Contact | Masthead | Discuss


The Myth of Mandates

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

The Priority of the Visible: How Democracy Empowers Terrorists

Ditching the M-word

Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy

The Poverty of Good Intentions

Buddhist Capitalism

Theory Gets a Reality Check: Power, Money, and a Little Bit about Love

The Politics of Innocents





books + ideas + provocations
Buddhism and Capitalism

discuss this article

An End to Suffering: The Buddha and the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is at its best when its author, Pankaj Mishra, discusses the Buddha, ethics, politics, and the free market. But Mishra prefers morose jaunts that retrace the Buddha’s journeys through India and Nepal. Along the way, updating Buddhism for our day, he strains to heft various heavyweights of Western philosophy alongside the Buddha. Throughout, he is unabashedly wistful about his own Nietzsche- and Flaubert-fueled struggle to grasp his “usable self ” and become a successful writer.

The ever-splintering, constantly changing nature of the individual self obsesses Mishra. As a young man in India, he caught this self-consciousness from Flaubert and Proust. As a somewhat older man, familiar with the West, Mishra finds that the Buddha had, in the style of a gruff country doctor, diagnosed the ailment (“the occasional fulfillment of desire strengthened the belief that one was a self, distinct from others; and such a belief fixed one further into the grid of such emotions as greed, hatred and anger”) and prescribed remedies.

According to Mishra, the Buddha beheld what Hume called “the theater of the mind,” learned to direct it through meditation, and consequently developed an ethical system that did not depend on faith. Instead, the Buddha asserted that the mind is the only place where human beings can have full control over their lives. It’s also the place where we can come to recognize the radical interdependence of everything and everyone in the world. This assertion is said to challenge a premise at the heart of the modern worldview: that the autonomous, self-directed individual chooses and pursues his own desires, and thereby comes to possess his own individuality.

After affirming radical interdependence, Mishra ends with a conclusion that’s as indisputable as it is boilerplate: a strong dose of Buddhist ethics and self-examination would benefit the world after September 11. While this prescription is a fair response to the distinctly non-Buddhist “with us or against us” mentality of the Bush Doctrine, Mishra’s book raises, and subsequently overlooks, a more interesting question: how have Buddhism and market forces interacted with and conditioned each other? After all, the Buddha preached that the multiplication of desires —desires of the sort that markets so brilliantly satiate—leads only to suffering. Buddhism developed in the midst of a commercialism that was extraordinary for its time, and today, Buddhism flourishes in materialistic markets. (In the United States, its ranks have grown by at least 170 percent between 1990 and 2000.)

Mishra tells us that the Buddha lived during an unprecedented era of free enterprise. Caste stratification was becoming porous, leveling bureaucracies were swallowing up small republics, and individuals had unprecedented market freedom. In other words, people were no longer basing their sense of identity upon their predetermined role in the social structure. The earliest Buddhists came from the newly emerging, relatively rich commercial class. In passing, Mishra asserts that people in this novel commercial class were beginning to feel their more distinct sense of individuality as a burden.

Did the new markets actually create a burdensome sense of individuality? Without being explicit about it, Mishra seems to claim that, as individuals start defining themselves primarily according to their role(s) within the market, isolation and alienation result — a common complaint, even among non- Buddhists. But Mishra neither explains why individuals have to define themselves in such a way within the market, nor why individuals have to experience the market’s material bounty in order to understand the appeal of meditation, mindfulness, and an ethics based upon radical interdependence.

Although Mishra starts by seeking the traces of Buddhism in India, he doesn’t dwell on why Buddhism died out there. Most egregiously, he doesn’t mention that some scholars hold Buddhism responsible for turning Hindus against beef-eating. (According to historian D. N. Jha, Buddhism’s insistence on non-violence to animals resonated in an economy where cows had suddenly become valuable. When Hindu priests tried to suppress Buddhism and win the farmers back, they had no choice but to accept the taboo against cow-slaughter.) A Hindu nationalist friend influenced by the sage Vivekananda (who said that Hindus needed “beef, biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita” in order to fight colonialism) tells Mishra that the Buddha, and Gandhi, are luxuries that India cannot afford. Instead of tackling this question, Mishra excoriates Hindu nationalism (aka overcooked food and vulgar songs) and Islamic fundamentalism with the kind of grumpy diatribe V. S. Naipaul perfected 30 years ago, and then stops trying to discover the relevance of Buddhism for South Asia.

Mishra is easily impressed by the post-Beat brands of Buddhism he discovers in California – a land that perfectly fulfills Nietzsche’s preconditions for Buddhism (“a very mild climate, very gentle and liberal customs, no militarism; and . . . it is the higher and even learned classes in which the movement has its home”). Mishra notes that most American strains of Buddhism depart from the ritualistic and schematic aspects common in East Asia, but he glosses over Buddhism’s luxury-item status in the West. These days, USAToday carries such observations as this: “With the iPod, the Buddha is in the details. The finish and feel are such that you want to caress it.” McDonald’s commercials show people craving Big Macs while meditating. Still, as Buddhist raconteur extraordinaire Jeffery Payne observes, “A fortunate birth, in Buddhism, is one where the child may be exposed to the Buddha’s teachings, and by that measure, contemporary America and Europe have become fortunate places to be born.” American Buddhists even comparison shop between many competing brands of Buddhism before picking the brand that works best for them.

Is that so bad?

As a young man in India, Mishra disdained the Westerners who came to his country shopping for religion; the older Mishra is more tolerant of Western seekers–perhaps because he has joined their ranks. He also acknowledges that the market has created the surplus wealth that allows his profession–international freelance writer–to exist. However, he doesn’t follow these thoughts to their conclusion: that the ability to cherrypick when searching for a spiritual path seems just as desirable as when selecting anything else. Perhaps the market is the most effective way to cater to every desire–even the desire to escape from desires?

Maybe. Mishra highlights, as a sign of consumer influence over Buddhism, several instances in which the customer has allegedly been right. Zen Buddhists in Japan, Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Hsien Lai monks in California, and many other organized Buddhists have supported dubious but pragmatic causes like militarism, nationalism, and Al Gore. One person’s consumer choice is another’s corrupting influence; Mishra, quoting the Buddha, suggests that “the same delusion that made men suppose themselves to be solid and independent individual selves could also make them see such changing, insubstantial entities as state and society as real and enduring, and subordinate themselves to them.”

But by creating and dispersing the demand for Buddhism, perhaps the market is spreading the seeds of its own annihilation? If that is eschatological talk, it’s prompted by Mishra’s eschatological title. The Buddha also said that the monk on the path to suffering’s end should be fully aware in all aspects of life: sitting, standing, walking, lying down, eating, drinking, defecating and urinating, falling asleep, waking up, talking, keeping silent, etc. When such mindfulness is combined with a recognition of the radical interdependence of all beings, what are the implications for how people in rich countries and those in poor countries relate to each other? Wouldn’t mindfulness create a persistent and painful awareness of resource allocation and production conditions? Market advocates claim that globalization will alleviate these inequalities; should this solution make sense to consumers of American, European, and Australian Buddhism? Or should a mindful person even mind inequalities of the very wealth that Buddhists hold leads to unhappiness?

A few months ago, Marvel Comics launched a“trans-created” version of Spider Man comics in India in which Pavitr Prabhakar (Peter Parker) gains his powers from a mystical force, instead of a scientific accident. Amazingly, according to The Weekly Standard, the series’ Indian-American creator recently observed that “diametrically opposed forces of science and magic represent the fundamental contrast between Eastern and Western culture.” Mishra is making a commendable attempt to break down such outmoded yet still-prevalent dichotomies and to locate a rational, non-religious ethical system in the subcontinent’s history – even as he shies away from searching for a place for such a system in the subcontinent’s future. (In a tantalizing aside, Mishra mentions that B.R. Ambedkar, a luminary who wrested civil rights for India’s untouchable caste, converted to Buddhism on his deathbed; thousands of his followers, agreeing with his critique of Hinduism, followed suit. In a country beset by communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims and still plagued by caste inequality, have these converts created a viable alternative?)

Makriman (Hindi for Spider) is in high demand in the Indian market; he is spinning strong new webs (the better to hold new movies, toys, and t-shirts); meanwhile, the Buddha (who brushes away webs of cravings, but urges webs of mindful mutual dependence) is settling, by popular demand, into the Western market.

1. I found* this review in a mustard field. Shortly before a cow was taken to market, it appears to have formed these words out of half-digested grass-blades and neatly stacked mustard seed-pods. "It’s…interesting,” I said. “But…will it suit The Dissident?” Then I remembered a Buddhist koan in which, when asked if a dog had Buddha-nature, a monk answered “Mu.” The word most commonly means “without” in Japanese, but also could mean “your question cannot be answered because it depends on incorrect assumptions.” Keeping this in mind, I decided to rescue the cow’s review from the fields of obscurity and began to transcribe it. Obviously, any errors incurred during the transcription are mine alone. —BB

*I encourage the reader who doesn’t believe this for a moment to take E. M. Forster’s description of Rickie Elliot to heart: “One might do worse than… suppose the cow not to be there unless oneself was there to see her. A cowless world, then, stretched round him on every side. Yet he had only to peep into a field, and click! at once it would become radiant with bovine life.” —BB

discuss this article

Bidisha Banerjee is a writer in Washington, D.C.




the articles

on your campus