Would the Buddha occupy?
The occupy movement has spread out from Wall Street to many parts of the world, including a modest presence in Australia. The most interesting events from a religious point of view are the will-they-won’t-they vacillations by the Anglican Church in response to the camp of protesters at St Pauls. Symon Hill in the Guardian makes the rather obvious point: since Jesus smashed up the temple, wouldn’t he be more interested in the issues of poverty and greed that the Occupiers are raising than with the fall in revenue dollars for the cathedral? Despite the absurd claims of the prosperity gospel types, Jesus didn’t believe in supply side economics. He stood on the side of the poor and the dispossessed.
What about the Buddha? As a contemplative, his main focus was on meditation and finding freedom from samsara. But he was far from indifferent to social concerns, and there are many suttas that speak of this. I will just draw attention now to a crucial passage in the Agganna Sutta. The Buddha is speaking of how society evolves – or devolves – in response to the choices people make.
“Now it occurred to one of those beings who was inclined to laziness: ‘Well now, why should I be bothered to gather rice in the evening for supper and in the morning for breakfast? Why shouldn’t I gather it all at once for both meals?’ And he did so. Then another one came to him and said: ‘Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.’ ‘No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for both meals.’ Then the other, following his example, gathered enough rice for two days at a time, saying: ‘That should be about enough.’ Then another being came and said to that second one: ‘Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.’ ‘No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for two days.’ However, when those beings made a store of rice and lived on that, husk-powder and husk began to envelop the grain, and where it was reaped it did not grow again, and the cut place showed, and the rice grew in separate clusters.
“And then those beings came together lamenting: ‘Wicked ways have become rife among us: at first we were mind-made, feeding on delight……and the rice grows in separate clusters. So now let us divide up the rice into fields with boundaries.’ So they did so.
“Then, Vasettha, one greedy-natured being, while watching over his own plot, took another plot that was not given to him, and enjoyed the fruits of it. So they seized hold of him and said: ‘You’ve done a wicked thing, taking another’s plot like that! Don’t ever do such a thing again!’ ‘I won’t’, he said, but he did the same thing a second and a third time. Again he was seized and rebuked, and some hit him with their fists, some with stones, and some with sticks. And in this way, Vasettha, taking what was not given, and censuring and lying, and punishment, took their origin.
“Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying and punishment. And they thought: ‘Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice.’ So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.
“‘The People’s Choice’ is the meaning of Maha-Sammata, which is the first regular title to be introduced. ‘Lord Of The Fields’ is the meaning of Khattiya, the second such title. And ‘He Gladdens Others With Dhamma’ is the meaning of Raja, the third title to be introduced. This, then, Vasettha, is the origin of the class of Khattiyas, in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.
So here we have it. Violence is caused by inequality, which is prompted by greed and laziness. One of the key junctures is the marking out of the earth: taking the abundance offered by nature, and claiming it as personal property. It is specifically in response to such strife that a legitimate (‘Dhammic’) government is formed, elected by the will of the people to ensure justice and peace for all. The purpose of government, the prime reason for it to exist, is to protect those who are the victims of exploitation.
So, I have no doubt the Buddha would be sympathetic to the ideals of the Occupy movement. Their main issue is how obscene, unregulated greed has created vast inequality, impoverishing the 99% while the 1% grow ever richer. I’m not sure whether he would be down in Wall St right now – somehow I think protests weren’t his thing. But he was a surprising man, so who knows?