“If you want to find the causes of the financial crisis that we are in, and if you want to come up with solutions for it, you’re going to have to deal with GREED.” That was the opening Buddhist contribution to our conference here in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Buddhist-Christian dialogue about the global economic recession.
The Christians responded to their Buddhist partners: “Yes, we certainly agree, but you can’t forget that greed can take on structural forms and become part of the very economic system of free-market capitalism.”
And so the first day of our Buddhist-Christian dialogue began.
After a good bit of back and forth, we came to a working consensus: We have to make a distinction between individual greed and structural greed. Though the two are very much related, there is a difference. Getting rid of one, does not necessarily mean getting rid of the other. I can remove all (or to be realistic, most) of my own individual greed and still be part of a greedy system that leads me to act greedily, whether I’m aware of it or not. My heart may be full of love of others, but if I buy a pair of pants made in a sweatshop in El Salvador, I’m part of a greed-based system that is exploiting some people for personal wealth.
But at the same time, we can pass all kinds of regulatory laws that constrict the greedy actions of Wall Street, and still, greedy individuals will find ways around the laws.
A simple analogy was used: Individual greed is like the air that a greedy person blows into a balloon. The balloon represents the greedy structure or system that results from the greedy individual. The Buddhist point is that without the greedy individual blower we would not have the “structural” greedy balloon. But the Christians respond that sometimes, the balloon ties itself closed, as it were, and floats away from the blower. Then, even though the individual blower stops blowing, the balloon is still floating around. The balloon, even though it originated from the blower, assumes an existence of its own.
So we came to a Buddhist-Christian consensus: to do something about the financial mess we are in, we have to try to remove, or at least reduce, both individual greed and structural greed at the same time. To deal with only one, won’t work. It won’t really bring about any change.
This is the point that was made powerfully by one of the speakers this morning, Sulak Sivaraksa, one of the world’s leading socially-engaged Buddhists (who over the past 30 years has been on a number of occasions either imprisoned or forced into exile because of his criticisms of economic exploitation in Thailand).
Sulak said pithily: “Without inner peace there cannot be outer peace.” That’s the Buddhists’ point: you have to work on changing your heart and attaining the peace of enlightenment before you can be an effective social activist. But he immediately added: “But inner peace can be achieved at the expense of outer peace.” That’s the Christian point: To think that we have done enough by overcoming our individual greed and attaining peace of heart is to exonerate ourselves from the necessary job of changing the greedy structures that prevent social peace.
We Buddhists and Christians are realizing that we have so much to learn from each other.