I am very interested in children’s education so I thought it was good news when Jeff Bezos of Amazon announced last week that he was donating 2 billions to fund an education system for young children.
At the same time I saw a number of people complaining on social media that this is not right, that rich people should be taxed more and that it is the State that should decide how to allocate the resources.
So I was wondering whether EBT could offer a perspective in this kind of debate. For example the fact that generosity is considered a good thing, would seem support voluntary donation and philanthropy, instead of higher compulsory taxation, because in the latter case people would give grudgingly and not make any good kamma. Also, in some EBT texts (I cannot remember the references offhand) the Buddha says that those who are attached to their wealth will suffer because it can end in the hands of thieves, kings or hated heirs. I remember that I was surprised (and a bit amused) when I saw that kings (collecting taxes or confiscating properties) appear in the same sentence as thieves…though it’s probably just by chance.
So does anyone have an opinion on this question based on their knowledge of EBT? I find it interesting to use Buddhism to think about contemporary issues in general, so I hope this topic is ok for the Watercooler.
Yes of course (unless you are in places like Dubai, at least as far as taxation is concerned - though death cannot be avoided there either …)
What I meant (but I realize I should have worded it a bit differently) is: should we only have taxation (and thus for example in the US have higher taxes) and little or no philanthropy, or should we have a minimum of taxation and then give a larger role to philanthropists?
At least this is basically the type of debate I’ve seen on social media (i.e. some people saying ‘Wow, how generous of Bezos!’ and others saying ‘What? He should be taxed much more and the government should build those schools!’)
Taxation is imposed as the cost of membership in a society. Any society’s needs will always exceed its taxation revenue. And because taxation is mindless, this gap in needs can only be addressed by mindfulness. Social media shouts about having others give more isn’t really mindful, though is it? It’s simply wishful thinking and complaining. EBTs might call that “useless talk” (which antedates social media).
The hilarious thing about increasing mindfulness is that it might just lead one to go forth from all that mindlessness.
I don’t think the EBT’s have anything of real importance to contribute to debates on the best methods of public financing, the proper purposes for public investment and spending, or the best approach to regulating the distribution of wealth and income.
The Buddha was interested in liberating himself and others from the fetters of worldly society, not telling people how to run one. He recommended giving, and a practice of non-acquisition and relinquishing my-making, not because these are the best way to run society, but because they are conducive to the liberation of the person who practices this way.
My guess is that the Buddha would have regarded someone like Jeff Bezos with bemused and mildly horrified wonderment. He is a man who is estimated to be the wealthiest man in human history, yet whose lust for material acquisitions, and for the endless aggrandizement of his personal power, seems boundless.
As Buddhists, we pay taxes and as mentioned we are encouraged in the Canon to do so. In terms of what “should be”, what we “should have” or “should do” about taxation? The Buddha stayed wisely out of that discussion-- just more thickets of views, opinions, clinging, suffering… etc.
What I find interesting is that in many fundamental ways Bezos thinks in the opposite way as EBT: for a start the whole idea behind Amazon is to minimize the time for clients between wanting something and obtaining it, whereas EBT teaches to abandon wanting. I also saw him speak about stress and for him the cause of stress was when you are not doing something to change things, whereas EBT is much more about accepting things as they are. He also spoke very negatively of stillness, which he calls stasis.
However I am not sure why the Buddha should have been ‘horrified’. Bezos has a totally different worldview and ideas of how to be happy than the EBT; if he got it wrong it seems to me that one should simply have compassion for him since he put so much energy and effort in the wrong projects.
Horror for me is more like the feeling inspired by many despots in developing countries and totalitarian regimes, which have amassed great power and wealth while hurting people.
Also, concerning your reference to ‘boundless lust’, as I am sure you understand it’s not as if once human beings have enough they just stop craving. If it were that simple then the way to become enlightened (end all craving) would simply be to first achieve ‘all’ one wants. On the contrary, if you view life as an impersonal process, it’s just normal that someone who has spent his whole life striving and craving should continue to do so, because he has spent his life in that ‘training’, all his conditioning is in that direction. So it’s not surprising that they should want more and more. Poor people are like that too. They are just less able to achieve their goals.
The EBTs don’t have much to say beyond acknowledging the legitimacy of taxation and the desirability of rājās helping the poor in their kingdom. Later texts like the Mahāsupina Jātaka add a further counsel, namely, that the taxation shouldn’t be exhorbitant, lest the populace go fleeing to tax havens.
King Pasenadi (describing a dream he’s had):
“Methought, sir, I saw a deep pool with shelving banks all round and over-grown with the five kinds of lotuses. From every side two-footed creatures and four-footed creatures flocked thither to drink of its waters. The depths in the middle were muddy, but the water was clear and sparkling at the margin where the various creatures went down into the pool. This was my ninth dream. What shall come of it?”
“This dream too shall not have its fulfilment till the future. For in days to come kings shall grow unrighteous; they shall rule after their own will and pleasure, and shall not execute judgment according to righteousness. These kings shall hunger after riches and wax fat on bribes; they shall not shew mercy, love and compassion toward their people, but be fierce and cruel, amassing wealth by crushing their subjects like sugar-canes in a mill and by taxing them even to the uttermost farthing. Unable to pay the oppressive tax, the people shall fly from village and town and the like, and take refuge upon the borders of the realm; the heart of the land shall be a wilderness, while the borders shall teem with people,—even as the water was muddy in the middle of the pool and clear at the margin.”
thanks, that’s an interesting text. However I find it hard to apply clearly to today’s world: it might appear to agree with more right-wing views on taxation (keep taxes low or else people - and businesses - will relocate) but at the same time the kings here are ‘fierce and cruel’, ‘crushing’ their subjects. On the other hand the message of today’s left is that they are ‘more caring’, and want to increase taxes for the benefit of the citizens (not the subjects )
So like I have found in many other cases, in Buddhist texts you tend to have black and white situations where it’s quite clear who’s wrong and who’s right, I am not sure to what extent they are useful in navigating today’ complex realities, where there are positive and negative aspects to most viewpoints.
Actually from some texts I read by B. Bodhi I got the impression that he was interested in both - to a certain extent. Sila is certainly important to purify one’s mind (and achieve samadhi), but also to have a better functioning society, where mutual trust is possible. For example lying is bad both because it is a defilement for the mind, and because society couldn’t really function properly if everyone was lying.
At least that’s my understanding at present (in this as in other cases in EBT, it’s not so much an ‘either or’ situation but a ‘win win’ situation - the ethics that is part of the path for liberation is also the ethics that helps society work better). But do tell me if you think I got it wrong.
As I alluded to in my earlier post quoting Hans Morgenthau. there is a logic in keeping distinct realms of human activity (e.g., politics, law, economics, morality) separate from each other. In ancient Judaism the priestly class and the lawmakers were prohibited from intermarrying so as to avoid a dangerous concentration of spiritual and political authority. There is something to be said for not looking to religious and/or spiritual teachings for guidance on how to conduct secular affairs.
thank you, that’s an interesting point. At the same time I have read on the BSWA website that the monk Ajahn Brahm was served breakfast by the President of Sri Lanka so there are definitely contacts between today’s monks and politicians; BSWA has also invited a politician to give a talk in their Dhamma Hall and Ajahn Brahm left his monastery during the Vassa retreat just to welcome him
so I had the impression that the 2 spheres were not so separate. Most of all since I try to use Buddhism to guide me in life, and life involves political choices whether you want it or not, I thought it would be interesting to raise the question.
Politicians can ‘use’ any religion to further their appeal, and expand their voter base. They also use religious blessings to validate their ‘rulership’, or going to war, etc. Religion attracts followers by liaising publicly with politicians and politics. Politicians are also people with personal lives, therefore may have religious beliefs. Monks may have political views and engage in politics- unsuitable livelihood. In an ideal world it is sensible for the two to be separate.
Thank you for your feedback. As you rightly point out, politicians instrumentalise religion and viceversa, and that is wrong.
But what about monks or religious people speaking out for what they believe in, simply with the aim of ‘doing good’? (rather than with the aim of getting more followers, which like you note is wrong).
An example would be this:
where both Bhikkhu Bodhi and people from the lay organization Soka Gakkai went to the White house.
Also, would you say that in places like Myanmar where there seem to be atrocities being perpetrated (see for example the regular coverage in the Guardian), the monks should not take sides and speak out against violence ?
You are coming to a major point and that is what that person’s intention is. I can almost now predict you showing me an arrangement where good intentions went awry but we cannot be responsible for what takes place ‘downstream’. To answer your question I cannot see anything wrong with one-off interventions. There are monks in Sri Lanka who are in the parliament and that I personally wouldn’t say is appropriate for a monk. Everyone, not just monks, should report monks promoting genocide as hate speech, to the police forces.