Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Economic Justice: Liberation from the Delusion of Possessiveness

Yesterday I attended the breakfast meeting called by ONE-Northside http://www.onenorthside.org to discuss the state budget cuts. The e-mail invitation was for “leaders” of member groups and those who showed up were either heads of social service agencies or like me, the minister of a local church. For the clergy, it was a time to listen as the various agencies told us as they receive less state money to provide services, we will see more people at our doors asking for food, shelter, tutoring, jobs etc. At our temple we already see several people stop by during the week or showing up on Sunday telling us they would like some money, some food or just a little assistance, such as a man wanting someone to help him fill out forms for housing. I’ve told our volunteers to give out bottled water, soda or whatever leftover snacks we have around and to give people the information sheets I received from Peoples Church and St. Thomas of Canterbury listing the nearby places and schedules for free meals and food pantries. I realize it falls short of what Haya Akegarasu called “an offering to a buddha” in an anecdote where Akegarasu goes to the kitchen and gets a hot meal for a beggar that his young relative tried to shoo away from the temple.

The people of community organizations such as ONE-Northside feel the most important action to take is to campaign for raising taxes – to increase the size of the pie instead of service agencies and their clients fighting over the crumbs. But as one minister said, “We need talking points. Our congregation members are already saying that higher taxes will make people and companies leave Illinois for other states.” (He added that he’s from the South and wouldn’t want Illinois to end up like those states with a stark divide between the rich and poor.) The agency heads said there are statistics showing the costs of jail, emergency room visits and nursing homes are much higher than the costs of providing ongoing services to those dealing with mental and physical health issues. An example of one cut of  “non-essential services” is the substance abuse prevention programs at Alternatives, Inc. http://www.alternativesyouth.org Those programs were providing tutoring and job training to underprivileged young people to give them confidence in themselves so they would be less likely to turn to drugs to temporarily escape situations of helplessness.

I’m not sure I can get people to consider the benefits of raising their taxes, but one thing I can do is help people see the delusion of possessiveness – that belief that one has to get more and more and hang on to it tightly. In the U.S. right now there seems to be a prevailing message of “you deserve what you’ve got and should protect it” – that is, your possessions and wealth are purely for the welfare of you and your family and should not be shared with the people who are too lazy and/or immoral to do honest work. There’s a demonizing of the “have-nots” as people who are poor entirely due to their own faults (they’re “illegals,” “welfare queens,” “thugs” etc.) It’s similar to how the aristocracy in Shinran’s time called the people of the working classes akunin, “evil persons,” deserving to be miserable because they break the Buddhist precepts in carrying out their jobs.


[photo – detail of woodcarving of the teaching Buddha by Harry Koizumi]
In Buddhism we say that gratitude comes from realizing our lives are the results of so many causes and conditions – that our comfort, health, “smarts,” rewards etc. are primarily from the influences of generations before us, the society we happened to be born in, the environment, how resilient or damaged our genetic material is. In that same realization should be a concern for others who did not receive such an advantageous aggregate of conditions. We can’t fault them for “bad choices” when we know that the choices we made were hardly well thought out and the good results were from choices we really did not make rationally but from anxiety or a fleeting hunch.

Although we live under a legal system of property rights and money exchange for goods and services, the Buddha pointed out the reality of “By nature, one possesses nothing.” Everything is only in our temporary custody despite all the documentation we have to prove ownership. If we can take this to heart, there would be no more sense of “giving” but only “sharing.” In that sense, there is an argument for higher taxes – assuming our governments are efficient enough to distribute those funds to the services that could help people more than our individual donations would (unfortunately in Illinois the local governments are known more for corruption than efficiency).


In Buddhism, you can still be a wealthy householder like Vimalakirti but the teachings help us from falling in the delusion of “deserving” to have and hang onto wealth and vilifying the poor as “unworthy.” Temples need to emphasize the universal sense of sharing with all beings instead of defining “generosity” as big donations to the temple. Of course as an institution we need to raise funds to operate, but part of the service we give to the community is to open the hearts/minds of our attendees – to help them become more able to identify with people who are struggling and suffering due to limited access to the resources we take for granted. I don’t think this is me getting political – but for myself and my privileged peers, we need to hear in the Buddha-Dharma our liberation from the crippling delusion of possessiveness.

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