Many of you may wonder: why did I choose “Zen Capitalism” for my site address? Buddhism and Capitalism seem completely at odds. Buddhism (in the understanding of popular culture) eschews the idea of private property and its doctrines seem a fertile ground for collectivism. So I'll define the two, to give the reader a better idea of what I mean by each and then we can discuss how they fit together on an intimate level.
Zen - a tradition in Buddhism; it is the tradition that I started out in, and is the foundation of the Buddhism from which I draw. I now consider myself a Secular Buddhist – I do not believe in nature spirits, ghosts, demons, reincarnation, or any of the other mystical trappings that are common to some traditions. I do believe in the ingenuity of the individual mind, the power of the human spirit, the value of mindfulness and a meditation practice, as well as a respect for my fellow sentient beings. Dharma, which I may mention in this article from time to time, is most commonly used in Buddhism to mean "the teachings of the Buddha," and that is how I intend to use it here.
Capitalism – If you’re at liberty.me, you already know what capitalism is. Capitalism is more than just an economic system – it’s a powerful catalyst for freedom, a celebration of human ingenuity expressed in industry, trade, and ownership of private property in pursuit of profits.
I initially chose to put these words together just for the shock value of their juxtaposition. How on Earth could Buddhism encourage competitive, free markets? How could a seemingly collectivist belief system encourage individual freedom? Well – I’ll tell you. Keep in mind that I’m only one Secular Buddhist – and as far as I know, I haven’t met one Anarcho-Capitalist Secular Buddhist other than myself. So, I speak for myself and only myself – not Buddhists in general or Secular Buddhists in particular. I am not a Buddhist scholar – but I live my life applying these concepts practically, every day.
I came to Buddhism first. My fascination with liberty and freedom came later.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been persuaded that Capitalism is a force for good – it is the most powerful system by which everyone is given the opportunity to succeed, to empower themselves, and (oh, I can’t help but use the old cliché) lift themselves up by their bootstraps. It can give one purpose – not only in the pursuit of profit, but to build something that benefits the community, offering a needed service or product, providing jobs and opportunities for others to succeed.
I won’t go into Objectivism, and rational self-interest and all of that – I’m not going to defend the profit motive. It doesn’t need to be defended. Ayn Rand already did it – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Buddhism, at its core, is highly individualist. It may not seem so, but it is. Think of every country that could be popularly identified as Buddhist. Do they all look the same? Does the imagery in their art look the same? Do the canons of their particular tradition look the same?
Well, no. They don’t. Some Buddhists eat meat. Some place more emphasis on meditation, others on scholarship. Some believe in reincarnation. Some believe in nature spirits, Gods, or even have elaborate cosmologies, with different worlds one is sent to after they die, depending on how they behaved during this lifetime. Buddhism takes on the “flavor” of every culture that it comes into contact with. Additionally, there’s the difference between the Layman and the Monk/Nun.
The Layman has to live “out in the world,” beyond the confines of a monastery or nunnery. The Layman has to tailor their Buddhism to fit their socioeconomic status, occupation, family, and living situation. The Layman has to put his Buddhism into practical use. So, in practice, Buddhism is highly individual – it has become associated with collectivism due to the highly collectivist cultural climate in Asia. In Asian countries, families are often bound together with obligation, honor and shame – concepts that have become alien to the individualistic Western mind, at least in their powerful influence on daily life – and as such, American Buddhism has taken on a much more individualistic “flavor.”
When I say this, many think of the “one with everything” reputation that Buddhism has in the West. You know what I mean – the concept that at the core of reality, we’re all the same, so we should treat each other with love as we would if everyone were our brother or sister. I’m not going to debate that we’re all carbon-based life forms, made of the same elements – I’m pretty sure that we can all agree on this. But Buddhism itself recognizes that despite these similarities, we all experience the world differently – there are many ways for a Buddhist teacher to engage with his/her students, so in practice there is an admittance that we don’t all learn or think the same. Likely, we all experience consciousness differently as well, making the question of the exact nature of consciousness itself rather tricky.
So, we’ve talked about how Buddhism is like Capitalism. What does Capitalism have in common with Buddhism?
Capitalism results in an increase of wealth, which is (of course) a reduction of poverty, and the elimination of suffering. I don’t like to put the Buddhist view of suffering in the terms of a mathematical equation; that somehow values can be punched in, and a more desirable outcome can be decided upon based on the net suffering of all involved – life is rarely that neat and tidy. Since Capitalism is the interaction of individuals, all desiring to better themselves in one way or another, the intent (reduction of suffering) is admirable and desirable, and therefore, very much in sync with Buddhist ideals. In the pursuit of profit, individuals increase the value of their labor on the market by enriching their mind (education), or getting experience (increasing the value of their labor), which benefits untold other individuals. The desire to get more benefit for less work expended is pretty basic to humanity. This desire drives us to innovate, and these innovations have the potential to save others from having to do backbreaking labor over a significant period of time - thus freeing up their time and energy, improving quality of life (which I doubt any Buddhist would argue is a bad thing). Not only that, trade encourages human interaction, which usually results in peace: it’s quite hard for one people to go to war against another if they know them on a personal level. They cannot be made into a nameless, faceless enemy – especially when both can profit from voluntary exchange.
So, Capitalism and Buddhism aren't at odds at all, but can be meshed comfortably into a solid, practical worldview. Both encourage enrichment of the mind, and stress the productive value of labor and intellect. Both value innovation, individual application of concepts, and improving everyday life for others. The reduction of human suffering is the ideal result of both Buddhism and Capitalism, regardless of intent on the part of Capitalism.
With any belief system, you can take some scripture or scholarly writings and twist them to your own ends – and I believe that this is necessary. Buddhism has survived so long because of its unique properties, not the least of which is its chameleon-like ability to adapt to every culture it encounters. When it comes to Secular Buddhism, every thought experiment with the Dharma from different perspectives is welcome. It keeps the tradition alive, vibrant, and flourishing – or, you could say that it increases its value in the marketplace of ideas.
Both of these philosophies encourage me to be the best I can be – to put forth my productive energies to benefit myself, the proceeds of which go to benefit others through my purchase of goods or services.
Buddhism encourages charity, and there’s also place for charity in Capitalism – as long as it’s voluntary. I volunteer at the library, spending a couple hours a week building skills, interacting with others, and donating my productive energy to what I believe is a good cause. What I get out of my time there - experience, social interaction, a sense of camaraderie - is worth much more to me than the hours themselves. The most powerful case for anarchy, in my opinion, is the existence of charity and volunteerism today. People voluntarily donate their time and effort outside of work to charitable causes - even while being preyed upon by the increasingly intrusive State. It is because of this that I advocate for a freer, more civilized, voluntary world. Both as a Buddhist and a Anarcho-Capitalist, I know both in my heart and my mind that we can do better.
"It has to start somewhere,
It has to start sometime.
What better place than here,
What better time than now?"
~Rage Against the Machine ('Guerrilla Radio')