Western Buddhist Review

From Buddhist economics to a new Dharma politics

On Fri, 15 January, 2016 - 10:59
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

The following is an important and original combination of a review of Vaddhaka’s book The Buddha on Wall Street, and an article exploring some political implications of Vaddhaka’s Buddhist critique of neo-liberal capitalism.

A review-article of Vaddhaka Linn, The Buddha on Wall Street, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2015

by Manjusiha

Bryan Magee, in Confessions of a Philosopher, says, of Schopenhauer and Hegel, ‘I do not think anything in the whole history of philosophy compares with this invective by one now world-famous philosopher against another’ (1998, p.466). The feud between philosophers Simon Critchley and Slavoj Žižek is, perhaps, our contemporary equivalent. Schopenhauer referred to Hegel as ‘a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan, who with unparalleled effrontery compiled a system of crazy nonsense that was trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers…’ (ibid). Žižek accuses Critchley, in the London Review of Books (LRB), of ‘the highest form of corruption’; Critchley responds, in Naked Punch, with ‘Violent thoughts about Slavoj Zizek’; Žižek describes ‘Critchley’s erratic mixture of commentary and accusation’ as ‘one of the lowest points in today’s intellectual debate’ (Žižek 2009, p.472) and likens him to Voldemort: ‘he-who-should-not-be-named’;[1] and so it goes on.

Their dispute began[2] with Žižek’s critical review, in the LRB,[3] of Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Critchley’s argument in the book that we should ‘resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control’ (Žižek 2007, p.7) is, for  Žižek, is tantamount to surrender: ‘[Critchley’s] words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism’ (ibid). Instead of resisting state power – taking part in this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance – the Left must seize power, according to Žižek – by force, if necessary.

Vaddhaka’s book was conceived in response to another of Žižek’s provocations. He indicates, in the introduction, that he has been pondering the questions contained therein since he heard a comment made by Žižek about Buddhism. According to Žižek, what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism. He believes that the emphasis in ‘Western Buddhism’ on meditation encourages Buddhists to create an inner distance from the ‘mad dance’ of modern capitalism, to give up any attempt to control what’s going on, and to take comfort in the view that all the social and economic upheaval in the world today is ‘just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being’ (Linn 2015, pp. 3-4).

This view, in fact, is not just Žižek’s; it is shared by many contemporary theorists. Here, for instance, is Critchley, from Infinitely Demanding:

In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island. (2008, pp.4-5).

The ideological lineage of this view of Buddhism can be traced to Nietzsche, who was introduced to Buddhism through his reading of Schopenhauer (Morrison 1997, p.4). Nietzsche was initially greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, but, as Morrison indicates, by the time of his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, he was beginning to distance himself from the Schopenhauerean worldview:

Schopenhauer’s philosophy was seen as a preliminary symptom of an existential disease to which Europe was on the verge of succumbing: nihilism (i.e. a state of despair consequent upon the complete loss of belief in the accepted world-view and its inherent values). (ibid.)

The harbinger of what Nietzsche saw as an approaching cultural catastrophe ‘is the growing realisation that “God is Dead”… [which] proclaims the “advent of nihilism”, the complete loss of belief in all those values, especially our moral values, which sustain our belief in ourselves and give us our seemingly privileged place in the cosmic order.’ (Sagaramati 2011, p.1). Yet Nietzsche ‘also thought it possible… that a more civilised response to this portending disaster might be the growth of a “European Buddhism” – a cheerful and orderly response to the apparent meaninglessness of human existence. But to Nietzsche such a response would still be a form of nihilism, what he calls “passive nihilism”, which is “a sign of weakness”, a “doing No after all existence has lost its ‘meaning’”..’ (Morrison 1997, p.5)

And this, for Nietzsche, would be ‘tantamount to accepting nihilism as the ultimate statement and judgement upon life: a European form of Buddhism which merely helps man cheerfully adjust to the seeming meaninglessness of existence.’ (ibid.) This, then, is the foundation upon which Žižek, Critchley and others build their critique of Western Buddhism – this ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism – a critical spark sufficient to bring Vaddhaka’s book into existence.

The Buddha on Wall Street opens with an examination of the British £20 note:[4] on the front is an image of the Queen;[5] on the reverse, an image of Adam Smith,[6] ‘the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who in 1776 produced The Wealth of Nations, a book that lays the foundations of modern economics and capitalism.’ (p.1) It is Smith’s idea of an ‘invisible hand’ (expertly explored in Chapter 1 of Vaddhaka’s book) that is at the core of the beliefs of neoliberal capitalists: the belief that individual self-interest leads, ipso facto, to economic and societal well-being. The idea is likely to have come from ‘a religious metaphor that was in use in [Smith’s] time. In other words, the working of the economy and the benefits of the pursuit of self-interest and profit are God-given. This is how God made the world.’ (p.11)

The Judeo-Christian tradition has also played an important role, historically, in attitudes to work. The abundance in the Garden of Eden, where all necessities were provided, was replaced, after the fall, by a situation in which we must labour for our food all the days of our lives: ‘you shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground’ (p.58). The Protestant Reformation brought ‘a changed perspective on work, which would eventually help to pave the way for the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of capitalism.’ (ibid). Another factor in its emergence was the decline of community (chapter 2 of Vaddhaka’s book). Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, traditional forms of mediaeval community in Britain and Europe ‘were destroyed in a process that created the conditions for capitalism to emerge’(p.40). Vaddhaka quotes Joyce Appleby, an economic historian:

The bond between the land, the people, and the divine had been broken and replaced by the emergence of land as an economic resource, what much later became known as ‘natural resource’ and [by the emergence] of the people on the land as only ‘labor’ or what, also much later, became known as ‘human resources’. (p.41)

This change, brought about in part by the ‘enclosure movement’ – the forcible transfer, to private ownership, of land previously held in common – helped to inaugurate the modern, capitalist structure of society that ‘accompanied the emergence of the economist’s emphasis on the purely self-orientated individual’ (p.41). Another effect of the enclosure movement, and of the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution, was an alienation from nature and an ‘objectification of the “other-than-human” as natural resources, things for us to own and use and throw away in the pursuit of economic and technological salvation’ (p.87), which Vaddhaka explores in a chapter on ‘Nature and the environment’.

In time, what was seen by some as the theological underpinning of society and of the economy came to be replaced by other notions, such as the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Just as in the natural world, in a similar arena of competition for scarce resources, those best adapted will rightly, according to this view, reap the greatest rewards, regardless of the effect on the less able. In fact, as Vaddhaka indicates in a fascinating aside, Darwin did not use the term ‘survival of the fittest’ until the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, borrowing the phrase from Herbert Spencer. ‘Because Spencer was associated with economic theories supporting unrestrained capitalism, Darwin inadvertently encouraged a narrow interpretation of his theory by economists and others’ (p.11).

Neoliberalism is the most recent – and by far the most pervasive – manifestation of this view. The situation in Chile, the birthplace of modern capitalism, is instructive: here, in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953–9), Pinochet ruthlessly seized power (in the 1973 coup) from the democratically elected socialist, Salvador Allende, and gave ‘the Chicago Boys’, the protégés of the radical laissez faire capitalist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, virtual free rein to set up the first experiment in neo-liberal economics, something that was only possible through state terror, widespread torture and ‘disappearances’. Thatcher, Pinochet’s friend, emboldened by the Falklands war of 1982 (codenamed ‘Operation Corporate’[7]), followed suit in the UK, with the war giving Thatcher ‘the political cover she needed to bring a program of radical capitalist transformation to a Western liberal democracy for the first time’ (Klein 2007, p.137). Modern neo-liberalism had been born, more often than not on the back of state terror or violence. And what was once an extremist minority view of how to run an economy is now the worldwide norm.

On 4 December 1978, Sangharakshita gave a lecture[8] inaugurating the London Buddhist Centre, where I teach and practice. In it, he said that it:

…is not just another Buddhist centre, however big, it is not just a place where people can come along, once a week, or once a month or simply talk about Buddhism, simply discuss Buddhism, or where they can even come once a week or twice a month to listen to lectures, listen to talks given by people who have merely, who have simply read a lot of books about Buddhism. It is not intended to be that sort of place. And it is not even a place where one can come along occasionally and do what one might describe as a little therapeutic meditation… [We hope it] will serve a more noble function than that, a more radical, I might even say a more revolutionary function than that, just keeping people going, giving them their sort of meditational vitamins, so that they can stagger along the path of worldliness for a few more days or a few more weeks. (Sangharakshita 2000, p.1)

The centre was ‘to be nothing less than the nucleus of a New Society’ (ibid). Five months later, to the day, Margaret Thatcher swept to power, inaugurating a very different kind of revolution – one that continues to unfold. What chance a Buddhist revolution in the face of such force? Now, almost all of the ‘Right Means of Livelihood on a co-operative basis’ (p.3) that Sangharakshita spoke about on that occasion have closed, with few springing up to replace them. Even Windhorse:Evolution, the jewel in the crown, discussed by Vaddhaka in his chapter on work (pp.73–4), has closed in the short time since the book’s publication. As Vaddhaka indicates, ‘Fulfilling the ideal of the ‘new society’ has not always been easy’ (p.185). It has been more difficult, since the ’90s, for our movement to ‘sustain a consistent level of interest in participating in right livelihood businesses and in communities. The reasons for this are not clear, but it’s possible that the rising pressures of a consumerist society in the 1990s and 2000s have had an effect on the Buddhist community’ (ibid). Vishvapani concurs – to an extent – in his review of Vaddhaka’s book but thinks that we need to reconsider whether communities and team-based right livelihood businesses (as they became known – TBRLs) really offer a viable model for wider social change:[9] ‘Not only have they not had that effect after four decades, engagement in them has declined considerably, even among very committed members of Triratna.’ Instead, Vishvapani says that the mainstream mindfulness movement ‘is what it looks like when Buddhism affects society on a mass scale,’ and asks, ‘how can we influence it?’.

My question would be, how have we influenced it? How have activities and practices that were previously at the fringe, such as mindfulness and well-being, ethical trading, organic produce and veganism, become part of the mainstream, other than through the concerted effort of movements such as our own? How could our practice of living and working together as committed Dharma-farers not have helped bring this quietly unfolding revolution into existence? Indeed, wouldn’t the fact of these activities and practices becoming more mainstream make it more difficult for our own businesses to survive, in the face of so much more competition!

A more important question, though, is how can we build upon what we have already achieved? How do we want the world to look in forty years’ time? Firstly, in my view, we would do well to bury, once and for all, the term ‘new society’. New Society was ‘a popular weekly paper’ (Sangharakshita 1978, p.1) that was published in the UK between 1962 and 1988, when it was absorbed into the New Statesman. In other words, the final issue was published before most of the twentysomethings who now come to the LBC were born. Sangharakshita, at the time of his talk inaugurating the LBC, said that ‘one hears [this expression ‘new society’] all over the place’ (ibid). That was then. Now, it is a musty, dated term that one hardly ever hears outside of our Buddhist movement (and not very much within it any more either). We must replace it if we are to continue to kindle – and reignite – the revolution that Sangharakshita inaugurated within the Order and movement and spoke about at the LBC nearly four decades ago.

An alternative to ‘a new society’ is ‘a new culture’. This is an even more radical, all- encompassing term and mission. After all, ‘the English concept of culture can also refer to politics and to economics… to moral and to social facts’ (Watson 2010, p.31). What we are doing then, in our Order and movement, is creating a microcosm of a new culture, and one that can have a positive – a revolutionary – influence on ‘a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces’ (Critchley 2008, op. cit.).

While we are on terminology, there is a term that I think we must, in contrast, make a sustained effort to reclaim: ‘the Middle Way’. Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, published a book with this title, in 1938. In it, he set out his philosophy of government. Middle – or third – way economics has been in and out of fashion ever since, with Tony Blair in the UK, famously, adopting it for the New Labour project. The middle way, proper, though, is not spin, or some weak mean or compromise to keep everyone happy, or the use of neoliberal economics for more benign social ends; it is nothing less than the transcendence of the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. These are, after all, the fault-lines down which much political and economic debate divides – including that between Žižek and Critchley. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project, for instance, suggests that our ‘“cultural worldviews”, or preferences for how to organize society [fall] along two cross-cutting axes: “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism”.’ People who subscribe to a “hierarchical” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics (e.g. gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity). Those who subscribe to an “egalitarian” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed equally and without regard to such characteristics. People who subscribe to a “communitarian” worldview believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones and that society should bear the responsibility for securing the conditions of individual flourishing. Those who subscribe to an “individualistic” worldview believe that individuals should secure the conditions of their own flourishing without collective interference or assistance. (Kahan et al 2007, p.2.)

It seems to me that, in the early days of our movement and Order, there was a particular emphasis, in the wake of a previously strong hierarchist/communitarian trend in society at large, on the individualist/egalitarian quadrant. For instance, Sangharakshita indicated, in his lecture inaugurating the LBC, that its purpose was ‘the work of our own individual development in free association with other people, like-minded’ (op. cit.), and defined the spiritual community, in What is the Sangha? (and elsewhere), as ‘a free association of individuals’ (2000, p.55). Critchley uses similar language to describe his ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility’, with politics consisting of ‘the creation of interstitial distance within the state and the cultivation of forms of cooperation and mutuality most powerfully expressed in the anarchist vision of federalism.’ (2012, p.17) It is tempting, given the ostensible similarities, to co-opt Critchley’s vision to our own. But it is, given our increasingly individualist culture, a temptation that should be resisted. Perhaps instead, to re-emphasise the hierarchical/communitarian dimension, we should re-define sangha as ‘a collective self-transcendence in the service of a higher purpose,’ with a much stronger emphasis on both the collective life of the Order and movement (particularly residential spiritual communities and team-based right livelihood businesses) and on more fully serving those in positions of responsibility within it (such as the College of Public Preceptors[10] and the Chairs of our centres). That the zeitgeist makes this hard for us to swallow does not make it wrong – it speaks, instead, to its urgency.

Critchley goes on to argue ‘for the efficiency of infinite ethical demands for a politics of resistance’ (ibid). This evokes an image and a myth for many Buddhists – particularly, perhaps, those in our movement; it is, in a way, the founding myth of our Order, a myth that Sangharakshita says is ‘not just a figure of speech. We should take it very seriously, even take it literally’ (Subhuti 2011, p.14): that of the mythic figure of Avalokitesvara, who made the following vow before his teacher Amitabha: ‘May I have the opportunity to establish all living beings in happiness… Until I relieve all living beings, may I never, even for a moment, feel like giving up the purpose of others for my own peace and happiness. If I should ever think of my own happiness, may my head be cracked into ten pieces…and may my body be split into a thousand pieces…’ (Wangyal 1978, pp.60–1).

Momentarily losing heart, Avalokitesvara’s vow is dramatically enacted: his head and body are shattered. Blessing the fragments, Amitabha transfigures the ten pieces of the head into ten faces and the thousand parts of the body into a thousand hands, each with its own wisdom-eye. Were that to be the end of the story then it would resemble, metaphorically, Critchley’s ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility’, a leaderless, consensual movement working collectively to alleviate suffering. Yet the conclusion of the myth is the placing, on the crown of the ten-faced head, of Amitabha himself, radiating ‘boundless, inconceivable light.’ It is easy, in our society, with its intensifying cult of the individual, to forget this part, this hierarchical dimension. What it communicates is that, without the objective, transcendent dimension – the lodestar that Nietzsche so chillingly diagnosed the disappearance of – then all we are left with is a more and more refined material self-interest to underpin our collective economic life.

It is an image that transcends the poles of individualism and communitarianism, of hierarchy and egalitarianism; it is a myth – when applied to the Order and movement – of proximity, intimacy, and collectivity – something that two of three Cs that can be taken as our founding mission sought to engender: co-operatives and residential spiritual communities were, as Vadddhaka indicates, an exercise in living and working intensively together as Dharma-farers, with the third C – the Buddhist centre – as both playground and place of practice.

This myth, then, of Avalokitesvara – in all its dimensions, resonances and symbolism – embodies the vision that Vaddhaka, a Buddhist with a rare grasp of economics, so skilfully evokes in his instructive book. In arguing for ‘a different form of economic organization, one that combines thoughtful self-interest and the creative energy and dynamism in capitalism with the values of generosity and altruism’ (p.7), and for ‘a middle ground between the two extremes of market fundamentalism and state totalitarianism’ (p.206), Vaddhaka is making the case (contra Žižek) for a radical middle-way economics as part of the emergence of a new, collective, culture in the service of a higher purpose, and for the crucial contribution that we, as Buddhists, can make to bringing it about.

Manjusiha is a Triratna Order member and lives in London.


Critchley, Simon (2008). Infinitely Demanding – Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. London: Verso.

Critchley, Simon (2012). The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. London: Verso.

Kahan, Dan M; Braman, Donald; Slovic, Paul; Gastil, John; Cohen, Geoffrey (2007). The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – the American Culture War of Fact. Yale Law School.

Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine. London: Penguin.

Linn, Vaddhaka (2015). The Buddha on Wall Street: What’s wrong with capitalism and what we can do about it. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.

Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. London: Phoenix.

Morrison, Robert G. (1997). Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. Oxford: University Press.

Sagaramati, Dharmacarin (2011). ‘Nietzsche and Nirvana’. Unpublished seminar paper.

Sangharakshita (2000). What is the Sangha? Birmingham: Windhorse Publications.

Wangyal, Geshe (1978). The Door of Liberation. New York: Lotsawa.

Waters, Peter (2010). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century. London: Simon & Schuster.

Žižek, Slavoj (2007). ‘Resistance is Surrender’. London Review of Books, November 15, 2007. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender

Žižek, Slavoj (2009). In Defence of Lost Causes. London: Verso.


[1] at the 24-hour launch of his Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. The first 90 minutes of the launch can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/lacanianink-1/24-hour-zizek-cafe-oto-june

[2] See Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology for the chronology.

[3] “Resistance is Surrender,” London Review of Books, November 15, 2007. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender

[4] It could be said that Vaddhaka is referring, here, to the English, rather than British £20 note. This note, issued by the Bank of England, is also legal tender in Wales, and is accepted throughout the UK (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banknotes_of_the_pound_sterling, accessed 7 October 2015).

[5] I wrote about the symbolism of the Queen on sterling currency here: http://journaleast.com/greek-tragedy/

[6] ‘All Bank of Scotland notes bear a portrait of Sir Walter Scott on the front in commemoration of his 1826 Malachi Malagrowther campaign for Scottish banks to retain the right to issue their own notes.’ (Wikipedia, op. cit.) Royal Bank of Scotland notes depict Lord Ilay, the first governor of the bank. The Clydesdale Bank £20 note shows Robert the Bruce.

[7] Klein 2007, p. 138.

[8] http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/texts/lecturetexts/138_Authority_and_th… Society.pdf. Accessed 29 November 2015.

[9] http://www.wiseattention.org/blog/2015/05/11/the-buddha-on-wall-street/. Accessed 29 November 2015.

[10] https://thebuddhistcentre.com/preceptors

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