Friday, December 03, 2004

Can Buddhism Save America?

This is an edited bit from an email I just sent to my friend Ali in Montana. We're discussing the American 'system' and how to bring about real change for the better. To set the stage, he quoted a bit from Jean Baudrillard's book America (p38-39ish) which states:

"It is like the obese person who keeps on getting fatter, the record rotating endlessly in the same groove, the cells of a tumour proliferating, like everything that has lost the formula for stopping itself. This entire society, including its active, productive part -- everyone -- is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping."

Here I present a Buddhist attempt to resolve our 'postmodern dilemma':

I think the idea here is to use the broken system itself to fix it. Suppose you enter a patriarchal society and want to improve the rights of women and the poor - you could go at it from many angles, but one method may be to focus your efforts on the men in power by offering them what they really want - assurance of continued power - through extolling the benefits of a more egalitarian society. In essence this can undercut their overall power by assuring them continued position. Of course it is not that simple, but that is in part how Buddhism took root in Tibet.

Our society isn't ruled by authoritarian men as much as it is by the dollar. People think that by the dollar they can find happiness. If Buddhism can show how people can get happiness at a reasonable rate, they'll flock to it. The upshot will be that all the while, the Buddhists will be converting people from 'eating alone, jogging, awaiting the apocalypse' [see Baudrillard] types into socially and self-aware, critical types of people.

A Buddhist story to illustrate the point is that of a wealthy man and his three kids. One day, each of the three kids was in their big house, completely engrossed in their play with their favorite toys. The man came home to see that the house had caught fire and ran in yelling at the kids to flee, but they just ignored him, so engrossed in their play. Smoke and heat was filling the room, but still they played, happy as can be. He could have dragged one of them out, but not all three before the whole house came down in flames, so he had to find a way to get them away from their toys and to leave at once. So he said, "kids, come and see. I have a toy for each of you far more splendid than anything you have in this house. They're waiting for you out in my cart - come see, come see!" The idea of a toy more splendid than anything they had in the house actually perked their attention and they ran with the father out to his cart outside the house. There they found nothing but straw in the cart, and were at first disappointed. But when they turned around and saw their house engulfed in flames, they realized that their father had saved their lives by cleverly breaking them free of their enraptured play. And in truth, as the house fell to ash and embers, the what they'd discovered in the cart really was more splendid than their toys in the house. (adapted from a story told in Intro to Buddhism, by Dr. Alan Sponberg, aka Saramati at the University of Montana)


D said...

Why do we need saving from ourselves... SIGH. I don't think I understand how we use the broken system to fix itself. If I understand your argument on male privilege while it does seem like a solution to alleviate fears of losing privilege and being placed in the opposite subservient position by promoting equality I question whether this would work. I think those in privileged positions are equally threatened by equality. I don't think people in a position of privilege- as a ultimate example, a white rich man- are afraid that by giving up their privilege that they will become disadvantaged to the extent of the antithesis black poor woman. I think they just don't want to give up their privilge, then they won't be at the advantage, they won't be "inherently" better than. Probably the biggest obstacle preventing equality is that people are fighting back to retain their privilege.

M said...

We probably do need to be saved from ourselves, and from what I know about Buddhism (which isn't a whole lot), it may be a step in the right direction for this country.

Anonymous said...

The way to change how people act is to change how they think. -Andy

Anonymous said...

Well, can it?

Anonymous said...

Well, can it?