They focus on a teaching given by Joanna Macy and Joan Halifax Roshi. Genju’s post stated:
In her retreat at Upaya, Joanna Macy spoke of being satisfied with just what we have. A retreatant asked how that could possibly be useful to the people in Haiti (the earthquake was very prominent in our thoughts on that day) who now had less than what had been already a horrendously impoverished life. Roshi Joan Halifax, adding to Joanna Macy’s response, pointed out that the dharma was aimed at our perceptions and she closed with this statement:
“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”
It would be my inclination to take that even further, which I will explain in this post.
On that post, Barry of Ox Herding blog had an interesting comment.
This topic (not your post) troubles me greatly, likely as a consequence of my own confusion.
I fear that good teachings (such as “Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others”) direct us toward complacency and self-absorption, and away from the very real suffering of others.
It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher say something like, “Everything is perfect just as it is” or “nothing is wrong with any situation.”
Of course this is true for the spacious, unobstructed mind. And how is that useful to the people in Haiti, or the partner in the other room?
Perhaps this is the deepest kong-an of our training. The Buddha himself seems to have struggled with it, immediately after his awakening.
To me, at least, it doesn’t seem sufficient to sit in our cozy Zen centers and talk about mind.
(Maybe I’m just grouchy today, having lost a family member far too early.)
First, condolences on your loss Barry.
Even though written in a grief state however I don’t see it as confusion or grouchiness. I think Barry is pointing out something important regarding how we receive that particular teaching. So I’m going to take a run at that kong-an here.
It very much deals with the polarization of the concepts of poverty and wealth and particularly involves relationship with the material. Poverty and wealth are both concepts that are calculated and measured by other concepts which are social constructs and culturally related. They don’t reflect a complete reality. They are distortions.
I want to give a couple of scenarios that each make a point and bring up further questions.
Here is a video that has sparked some controversy and a few awards:
If that link goes down here is another source.
This is part of one comment that was left on another source of the video:
The following film was created by a crewman who served HMS Devonshire 1976 to 1978. He is now retired, and lives in the Philippines where he is an active member of the local Lions Club…“Here is an example of what we help to do being Lions….we help feed poor areas….This clip is lifelike of the real world here. We get food donations from anywhere, usually bigger companies support us, and we try to raise awareness and cash through fund raising, and once in a while the Lions organise a feeding in a deprived area where the families live in cardboard houses under a bridge, under covered arcades. No running water, no toilets, no money, little hope. We can’t do everything, but can do a little. Those kids diving into the trash bin is a sight you see everyday at the KFC, Chow King, Jollibee, Shakey, Pizza Hut, McDonalds here. Especially when the guy arrives where he lives….kids come from everywhere, and the bones are passed from hand to hand…”
This is not much different than what happens in India. People scavenge in order to survive. Sometimes other people, often but not always outsiders, will give them something more.
Some people felt this movie was a type of “poverty porn” made to wring anguish from the privileged, then donations, followed by the self-satisfaction of relief provided by “doing something”. That something is usually only a very short term course of action. This type of approach :
- engenders a culture of dependency,
- perpetuates a sense of learned helplessness,
- causes compassion fatigue or desensitization among viewers/donors,
- brings derision towards the poor for the number of children they may have [some time in the future I want to write a post about The Myth of Overpopulation to address that]
- and does nothing to alleviate the root causes of poverty such as lack of access to education, health care, employment and opportunity to integrate into larger society.
Those are the major criticisms and in some ways to a degree I agree with those criticisms. However these are also scenes that much of the developed world are never exposed to and cannot even imagine. And such scenes also play out in highly developed American and European countries as well, although the scale is not yet as extensive as in the developing world. Without being able to delineate the reality of people’s situations it is not possible to introduce appropriate responses.
There is a notion that if we don’t bring up racism, poverty, injustice that they are somehow magically relieved or will just go away. It goes something like, “Life is fine for me so why upset me with these issues.” or ” I believe in equanimity and oneness, therefore that’s how the world is.” or “I’m not a racist so I don’t have to deal with someone else’s problems with racism.” or simply “I don’t want to hear about it. NOT MY PROBLEM.” Here’s an example of a real comment made by someone called Median from Sujato’s blog.
About buying things made in sweatshops. There is nothing unethical about that. It is not my responsibility to right the global imbalances you talk about. If I choose to try to help poor people in the third world then I can do that. But I am not obligated to do it.
I am not causing suffering by doing purchasing things that are made in sweatshops and at a cost to the environment. Do you think the poor factory worker in the third world who made that object will suffer if I buy it? The responsibility for environmental degradation, exploitation of workers, etc lies with those who actively do those things to enrich themselves, and they only accrue demerit if their intention is to enrich themselves through exploiting other beings.
The logic or rather ill-logic of that self-satisfied comment is quite evident. It could be called the “Let them eat cake” rationalization. The purchaser believes in that scenario that they have no connection to the supply chain whatsoever. The goods they desire are their right. They have a right not only to the goods but to the freedom from involvement with the supply of those goods. Money can apparently buy a clean conscience along with a clean shirt. Any portion of responsibility in the scenario is magically shifted to others. There is not even cognizance of the negative effects globally. These are out of sight and therefore out of mind. Selfish and entitled doesn’t even begin to describe such an attitude. This person’s psychological comfort takes priority over “global imbalances” “environmental degradation” and “exploitation of workers”.
Selfishness and entitlement are part of the perpetually positive unruffled attitude that is the luxury of the privileged. There is a choice available to ignore or acknowledge what is happening in the larger context. There are ample layers of insulation against acknowledging it. Most of the population of the world don’t have that choice.
The situations above represent examples of:
- The mind of obliviousness (ignorance) being without wisdom
- The mind of disdaining noblesse oblige (greed) being without generosity
- The mind of untouchability (aversion) being without compassion
- The mind of judgement (attachment to conditioned views) being without equanimity
- The mind of poverty most often focused on self-interest, personal comfort, wealth and accumulation
The Mind of Poverty/Wealth
In the essay Wealth versus Money from Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality by Alan W. Watts he speculates on the future of the United States. He then goes on to discuss the ecological situation as it reflects the meaning of wealth and the symbolism of money. This interesting and somewhat meandering essay was written in the 1960s yet the issues are as current as today’s Internet news.
What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself…
But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth. (p.4-5)
The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination. Somewhat as metals deteriorate from “fatigue” every constant stimulation of consciousness, however pleasant, tends to become boring and thus to be ignored. When physical comfort is permanent, it ceases to be noticed. (p.11-12)
When something ceases to be noticed it is taken for granted. This is not only by the person taking things for granted but this grant-taking is projected onto others. There is a huge assumption that everyone is the same as we are. Anything that jars this assumption (cognitive dissonance) is denied. It is delusion in action.
Another very good explanation of these concepts and echoing these sentiments almost 50 years later, comes from Ajahn Punnadhammo in his 2008 blogpost Brother can you spare $700 billion?:
The Buddha said that they [decisions] should never be made on the basis of greed, anger, fear or delusion. It is obvious how greed and fear have poisoned the well, but I would like to focus on something a little deeper, how delusion has worked in creating the present financial collapse.
Specifically, the whole scenario demonstrates the truly amazing power of mental formations in human history. Money itself is an abstraction. At some point in the distant past people agreed to believe that this shiny rock was worth two cows, even though the real, utilitarian value of a cow is considerably more than the real, utilitarian value of a shiny rock…
Of course mental formations, although void of substance, have a powerful energy when millions agree to believe in them…
When thinking about an economic order, we should remember what an economy is for; human comfort and health primarily and the satisfaction of lawful sense pleasures secondarily. The first priority should be to make sure that every person gets the sufficiency of a decent life, i.e. the four requisites of food, shelter, clothing and medicine. After that, the surplus should be rewarded to those who are most energetic and creative in producing wealth for the general community, certainly not to those who are most clever at manipulating mental abstractions like derivatives and futures. In other words, reward production and creation, not speculation.
In the West we are removed from experiencing the material realm as we encounter it. There is an interposed layer of “value”, meaning monetary symbolic value between us and what we encounter, including experience.
We’ve all seen the ads for credit cards which state, “Object A worth lots, Object B worth lots more, resulting experience—priceless.” This constant pressure and reinforcement to invest money into objects that will then bring about priceless experience is part of what engenders this illusory value layer. There is no money to be made in real experience. There is no money to be made in perceiving objects simply as they are. Therefore these things are devalued. As are the people who produce and create them.
The glamour or shroud of value that surrounds objects and people is a smokescreen. And it is that intoxicating smoke that we inhale daily. We invest in the value of illusion. If something can’t be placed on the symbolic continuum of monitization then it has no value. We even hear this in the many Dharma-Dana talks by some teachers, “How much is it worth to you?” That teachers even have to ask these questions reveals that many people have lost the ability to evaluate the worth of something, be it object or experience. And that people are confused between the concepts of wealth and money.
This strongly influences one of the most time intensive areas of our lives-the work we do.
As jobs get more abstract so do the rewards. Certainly there is the pay check, which is rarely cash money any more and is often directly deposited into an account so that it is not even a material transaction in the form of a piece of paper-the paycheck-but an electronic one. There are also the other intangible “social capitals” such as job titles, office locations, levels of authority, perks of all sorts, awards, performance reviews, bonuses, name recognition and in some instances the most intangible of all–fame.
The manufacture of symbolic value and symbolic reward is what much of capitalism and post-modernity is all about. As long as there are people willing to imagine value and others willing to purchase that illusion the supply is seemingly endless. Seemingly.
Alternate Views of Wealth
For a long time the prevailing mindset of dominant nations has been “You’re wealth is my wealth, but your poverty is your own.”
This has meant that materials are to be shared/sold/looted but keep the ideology to yourself. Or better still take our ideology instead of yours. By ideology I mean religion, social customs, culture. [This has also been known as colonialism in many instances]
It has not been lost here how ironic it is that the ideologies of many materially impoverished areas are now also being sought and commodified since the unsatisfactoriness of material greed and it’s attendant social structures has finally begun to emerge. So now we have the addition of ideological and particularly spiritual greed on top of it.
I want to give some examples that I’ve taken note of in my area in North India and elsewhere with relation to material wealth. This is simply to illustrate that there are other options in terms of engaging with the material realm. Yes there are downsides to each of these alternative views just as there are downsides to capitalist, communist and other views. The point is we have the option to examine many views and consciously choose that which is most beneficial and appropriate at the time in consideration of the larger picture. Interestingly all of the downsides are related to clinging to views when they are demonstrably outmoded and dysfunctional. The detriments come from failure to acknowledge a need for evolving our viewpoints in the face of obvious change.
These are just quick notes not an ethnological study. Most of these occur in spite of caste barriers. They are a way to circumvent that hierarchy which some still cling to.
The Value of Work and Alternative Business Culture
To have work, particularly steady work is difficult in India. There are few large employers. The majority of the population work for themselves, from shop owners to day laborers. There is no unemployment scheme or welfare. There are ration cards available for the very lowest income people but identity documentation is required to get one. Many people don’t have that or can’t afford to get it.
Individual enterprise is the norm. The majority of people I know have rarely had a boss. Work is often a cooperative family project with successive generations taking over the businesses.
People continually attempt new business ideas. My neighbor with a restaurant started a dry goods shop a few years ago and now has begun selling vegetables as well. Market assessment and inventiveness is a continuous process. There is constant adaptation and evolution as circumstances change. Circumstances can change rapidly. This lack of security is reflected in the adaptations people quickly make.
Funds are raised for business ideas from friends and relatives. They start small and build continuously along with continuous reinvestment. Little money is spent on pass-times, entertainment even though a good deal of time may be spent in socializing.
There isn’t much. Fashion is secondary to usefulness.
Usefulness of Objects
Wastefulness is a deplorable habit and it is even regarded as anti-social. Once Ananda explained to a king how the monks put the gifts offered to them to maximum use. When new robes are offered the old ones are taken as coverlets, the old coverlets are utilized as mattress covers, the former mattress covers are used as rugs, the old rugs are taken as dusters, the old tattered dusters are kneaded with clay and used to repair cracked floors and walls (Vin. II, 291)
from One Foot in the World:Buddhist Approaches to Present-day Problems by Lily de Silva
[this is an excellent essay that discusses a lot of current issues-worth reading in it’s entirety]
This is quite true today as well. Our old bath towels become dish cloths and then rags to wipe off .
Newer is Not Necessarily Better
Household goods pass from generation to generation. New items are purchased on an as needed basis as opposed to an as wanted basis. Items are used for as long as possible.
In much of Europe there is a similar viewpoint. The “rustic” is valued. As is quality over quantity.
Old and New Contexts
What is old in one context is new in another context. This is basically a statement about recycling, not as garbage, which is the way recycling is viewed in North America, but as usable goods.
Disposable goods are a very small part of consumer culture in India. Used, refurbished, re-purposed and restyled goods prevail. By example we don’t use paper Kleenex tissues but cloth handkerchiefs which are washed and re-used. Paper towels are not used. Instead cloth rags or used newspaper take their place.
Durability is primary. When things are broken they are fixed rather than discarded.
Obsolescence only means that something is too worn out to be useful rather than it’s fallen out of fashion and been superceded by new models.
And for every seller of used goods there are many buyers. Value is in usefulness rather than newness.
Sharing and Reciprocity
If my neighbor has an item then there is sometimes no need for me to get one as well. Goods are often shared between people who are socially connected. Our neighbors sometimes bring us bags of vegetables from their village relatives, dishes of curry and all kinds of things. We sometimes drive them in Manoj’s car to hospitals in case of illness or to temples that are not within walking distance for special occasions. And most people who are closely connected can give you an inventory of their connection’s possessions with a high degree of accuracy. If someone needs a specialized tool for something they can usually find out pretty quickly who has one and who can arrange it’s use.
There is an expectation of reciprocity in this sharing. It is very much the activity encapsulated in the statement “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It is not usually based on individual reciprocity, such as “That guy owes me.” Although abusers of the system will find less goods and connections available to them in time. It is more often done in the interest of the harmony and needs of the group. And it is also often a method of reconciliation between people who’ve had an interpersonal problem. [“Gifting” is also used for that purpose.]
I recall this kind of thinking in my own family in Canada as well. Being from rural backgrounds there was an acknowledgement of interdependence particularly due to the harsh winter climate. If a neighbor’s or even stranger’s car broke down and they came to my grandmother’s farmhouse they would be invited in, given food and a place would be prepared so they could spend the night until they could arrange to have their problem taken care of. Everyone operated on this kind of arrangement. If someone needed a barn built others would come and help. If someone had an over supply of potatoes they’d pass it along and possibly receive beans, carrots, baked goods, preserves, home-made pickles or many other things.
One statement I hear repeatedly is “It is enough for me.”
Great ambition is acknowledged to be accompanied by great headaches. Many people would rather have an enjoyable life with less, than a hectic problem-filled life with more. This does not mean that people lack ambition or are lazy. That was often a statement made by the British during the colonial era and prevails in racist thinking today.
People work very hard to reach a point where basic material comfort is obtained. And then they continue in order to maintain that. Quite logical thinking revolves around utility.
How many beds can one person sleep on at a time?
How many televisions can one person watch at a time? [Very few people actually watch television alone. It is a social activity.]
How many cars can someone drive at once?
Time is for People
Continuing with the subject of driving, very few people actually drive alone. People walking are often picked up along the road. You’ve no doubt seen photos of overloaded cars, trains, trucks and busses. No one gets left behind even if it does throw the schedule off. [This does not apply to international flights however!]
Multi-tasking is not in most people’s vocabulary. Attending a busy shop with a dozen customers jostling to pay for their goods may seem like multi-tasking but it is actually uni-tasking done at a rapid pace. It takes practice. [Lines or queues are not common so one has to step up to receive attention]
Waiting is an art form. But also not unpleasant since it provides an opportunity to meet people, make new connections and socialize.
Schedules, appointments and timings are approximate. Time is for people not for schedules. Time is used by people, people are not used by time. If a job takes longer to do than expected then it is done in the time that it takes. That doesn’t mean people don’t get impatient sometimes but it is certainly not with the frequency I see in North America.
Measurements of Social Capital
Relationship is the basis of social capital rather than material goods. Sociability, proximity [neighbors], friendship, kinship and financial connections are only a few of the types of relationships that bear upon the description of being successful.
Intelligence and knowledge are highly valued as is the wisdom of older more experienced people. In a country with a relatively high rate of illiteracy, the ability to read and therefore gain knowledge is a social bonus. Experience is recognized as a form of education so those who’ve lived longer have gained more.
“Gifting” is one of the methods of enhancing social bonds. Gifts are often food related or utilitarian objects. One friend gave me a food grinder. I gave her and her friend meals and a place to stay for a few days when they came to town.
In terms of consumer behavior India has placed at number 1 on the Greendex survey conducted by National Geographic, which measures sustainable or “green” behavior “in 65 areas relating to housing, transportation, food and consumer goods”.
Perhaps some of the attitudes towards the material realm I’ve outlined above have something to do with that.
The Amnesia Crisis
Most of the above items are similar to attitudes held by generations in the past. Anyone who’s grandparent or parents went through World War II or the Depression may have heard stories relating to the use of goods at that time.
As well anyone who lives in a remote area, where goods are scarce or climate is extreme will be familiar with some of those listed items as well.
It’s nothing new but something that is increasingly been forgotten in the rush for the latest and greatest every thing.
Most of the crises the world is facing are a result of the terms of relationship to material goods and have to do with forgetting the actual, useful value of the goods, that is the actual wealth, and in investing our attention in the symbolic value of those goods or imaginary wealth instead.
This attitude renders many current views of both wealth and poverty illusory.
Answering the Question
The answer to the question implied in the statement “Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.” lies in relationship based on equanimity (upekkha). Equanimity combats the tendency to compare and subsequently judge. The comparing conditioned mind is wrapped up in personal fantasies, rationalizations and unhealthy emotions. The mind of equanimity is not involved in envy or pity, two of the most prominent judgemental emotions- it is neither fostering a mind of poverty in ourselves or others.
This does not lead to detachment from the situation, only disentanglement from unhealthy emotions that we are conditioned towards. It allows a clear headedness with which to assess and address a situation. Equanimity allows true empathy, compassion and wisdom to emerge because we are not busy protecting our own self-interest.
The definition is: not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind – not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.
The near enemy is indifference. It is tempting to think that just ‘not caring’ is equanimity, but that is just a form of egotism.
The opposite is anxiety, worry, stress and paranoia caused by dividing people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’; one can worry forever if a good friend may not be a bad person after all, and thus spoiling trust and friendship.
A result which one needs to avoid is apathy as a result of ‘not caring’.
Equanimity is the basis for unconditional, altruistic love, compassion and joy for other’s happiness and Bodhicitta.
Equanimity is about non-attachment to views, opinions, unhealthy perceptions but it is not about inaction. It is a particularly poignant expression of anatta.
I personally dislike the slogans “Everything is perfect just as it is” or “nothing is wrong with any situation.” since they are dismissive and will lead to complacency. “Perfect” is a ridiculous adjective, even though some words in Buddhist thought are often translated that way. Perfect has a connotation in English that isn’t all present in original texts. “Wrong” implies that everything is all right. Clearly it is not for there is still much suffering in the world. These are misperceptions of Upekkha.
Upekkha is not “complacency and self-absorption” and is almost the opposite of that. When vision is cleared of wasting time on relative rankings, especially one’s place within them, dominance and attempting to secure the unsecurable, suffering can be detected and appropriate actions instigated. It is non-judgmental which means that differences can be perceived but jumping to judgement is forestalled. It is stopping in the gap between perception and personal, egoistic, conditioned reaction to that perception. There are then no barriers or insulation from direct experience.
Neither a thought nor an emotion, it is rather the steady conscious realization of reality’s transience. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”
Gil Fronsdale quoted in Ronald Alexander…
It is difficult to cultivate equanimity. One has to be prepared to hurt. And to accept that hurt and work with it. And to let it go. Tibetan tonglen practice is one way to cultivate equanimity. As is metta meditation. The stronger the hurt that is absorbed the stronger the metta that arises.
As for Zen practice, seeing the “suchness” of a situation (including the state of one’s mind) is a prerequisite for equanimity and is possibly an embodiment of equanimity when developed fully.
A detailed discussion can also be found here Contemplation on The Four Sublime States 4. Equanimity (upekkha) by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera
To establish equanimity as an unshakable state of mind, one has to give up all possessive thoughts of “mine”, beginning with little things from which it is easy to detach oneself, and gradually working up to possessions and aims to which one’s whole heart clings. One also has to give up the counterpart to such thoughts, all egoistic thoughts of “self'”, beginning with a small section of one’s personality, with qualities of minor importance, with small weaknesses one clearly sees, and gradually working up to those emotions and aversions which one regards as the centre of one’s being…
Equanimity is the crown and culmination of the four sublime states. But this should not be understood to mean that equanimity is the negation of love, compassion, and sympathetic joy, or that it leaves them behind as inferior. Far from that, equanimity includes and pervades them fully, just as they fully pervade perfect equanimity.
Here’s some music
We’re never going to survive unless we get a little crazy.