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?


16 thoughts on “Would the Buddha occupy?

  1. Well, the Buddha did walk between armies to stop wars, which in my opinion is the most fantastic act of civil disobedience i can imagine. Also in the bloodless sacrifice sutta the king only came to the Buddha asking how he could do a really cool sacrifice to benefit himself, the Buddha answered by completely eviscerating the kings economic policies, advocating some form of socialism.

    Ive never understood why so many people (white middle-upper class Buddhists) don’t see it as a monastics role to take on pressing social issues and advocate for justice. I often hear many Theravadins criticizing Bhikkhu Bodhi for example for becoming “entangled in the world” with his recent social activism. In my reading of the suttas I don’t see the purpose of renunciation being to ignore the world and its problems, but to FULLY ENGAGE the world and its problems, free from the task of earning a living and dealing with family and other such responsibilities of lay life.

    The Brahma Viharas are central to the path, what is the point of developing them if you don’t act on them? The most beautiful stories in the suttas are those where the Buddha engages some of the most pressing social issues of his time. Imagine if instead of confronting Angulimala the Buddha simply said “sorry guys im a renunciate ” The Buddha told his monks and nuns to go out and actively spread the Dhamma, no two going the same way. What is this if not activism? perhaps the most striking example from the Samyutta Nikaya, Punna sutta;

    “Well then, Punna. Now that I have instructed you with a brief instruction, in which country are you going to live?”

    “Lord, there is a country called Sunaparanta. I am going to live there.”

    “Punna, the Sunaparanta people are fierce. They are rough. If they insult and ridicule you, what will you think?”

    “If they insult and ridicule me, I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with their hands.’ That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone.”

    “But if they hit you with their hands, what will you think?”

    “…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with a clod.’…”

    ….Then Ven. Punna, delighting and rejoicing in the Blessed One’s words, rising from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One and left, keeping him on his right side. Setting his dwelling in order and taking his robe and bowl, he set out for the Sunaparanta country and, after wandering stage by stage, he arrived there. There he lived. During that Rains retreat he established 500 male and 500 female lay followers in the practice, while he realized the three knowledges and then attained total (final) Unbinding.”

    In the Buddhas time period brahmanism and the emerging caste system was the most oppressive institution, and so he crafted his teaching to directly oppose those philosophies. there is no need for the 12 point cycle of dependent origination it is often fully taught with two or three points. The 12 point cycle was a rhetorical attack on the 12 cycles of creation in Brahmanism. If he were alive today he would be opposing racism classism militarism and the destruction of the planet.

    • “The 12 point cycle was a rhetorical attack on the 12 cycles of creation in Brahmanism.” A search turns up lots of information on cycles being of X length, but I didn’t find anything on 12 cycles of creation. Would you happen to have a reference or source you could point me toward, Lars?

    • Hi Lars, can I second Linda’s request? I haven’t heard of a system of ’12 cycles of creation’ in Brahmanism – it sounds interesting. It seems to me the most obvious reference point for the number 12 in this context is the number of months in a year, as symbolic of a cosmic cycle.

      Incidentally, I just looked for this ’12 cycles’, and stumbled across a striking little detail. In the Hindu Padma Purana (circa 11th century?) there is an estimate of the numbers of creatures in the world. Now, I’m normally not that impressed by attempts to claim that ancient religious texts anticipated details of modern science, but this is pretty impressive (when compared with modern estimates).

      Total species: 8 400 000 (8 700 000)
      Aquatic species: 900 000 (2 210 000)
      Plants: 2 000 000 (1 000 000 including fungi)
      Insects and creeping things: 1 100 000 (much more)
      Birds: 1 000 000 (10 000)
      Mammals: 3 000 000 (5 500)
      Humans: 400 000 (1! perhaps this refers to different tribes.)

      So the total number of species is very similar, but the sub-categories aren’t a very good match. Somehow a bunch of wrong numbers got added up to the right one! Still, the figures are pretty much in the right scale of things, and given the uncertainty even today among biologists, I reckon it’s a pretty remarkable effort.

    • I believe its Kalupahana’s A History of Buddhist Philosophy, the chapter on dependent origination. I could be wrong I wrote that before i went to work so i was just pulling things from memory.

    • Here’s a link to the book’s chapter on Dependent Arising:


      I haven’t read it all yet but it looks like a book I’ll want for my library. Coincidentally I’m working on a blogpost on DA at the moment, and I agree with a lot of what the author has said thusfar, though I trip (once again) over the term “interdependence”.

    • I happen to have Kalupahana’s A History of Buddhist Philosophy, so I checked the chapter on DA, but did not see any mention of “the 12 cycles of creation in Brahmanism.” I just skimmed it, as well as other books of his I have but did not find it, though perhaps I missed something.

  2. Hunger

    It was while staying at Aggālava Monastery that the Buddha gave this lesson about a hungry man.
    Early one morning, as the Buddha surveyed the world from his Perfumed Chamber at Jetavana Monastery, he saw a poor man in Alavi. The Buddha became aware that that man was ripe for attaining stream-entry. After daybreak, the Buddha set out from Jetavana with five hundred bhikkhus for Aggālava Monastery.
    The poor man heard that the Buddha had arrived, and he was eager to listen to the Dhamma. Unfortunately, however, his ox had strayed that morning. He thought, “I really want to hear the Buddha teach, but my ox might be in danger. Shall I listen to the Teacher or search for my ox? I will first find my ox first and afterwards hear the Dhamma.”
    Meanwhile, the people of Ālavi offered food to the Buddha, and, when the meal was over, they took his bowl and waited for him to give anumodana.
    “I traveled thirty yojanas to come here for the sake of a certain man,” the Buddha said. “I see that he is not here yet. When he comes, I will speak.”
    Without saying anything more, he sat and waited. Of course, the people were also quiet because, when the Teacher is silent, neither gods nor men dare to make a sound.
    As the daylight faded, the poor man found his ox, took it back, and tied it up. “It is too late to hear the Dhamma, but I will at least pay my respects to the Teacher.” Although he was extremely hungry, he decided to go directly to the monastery. As soon as he arrived, he paid obeisance to the Buddha and sat down respectfully at one side.
    The Teacher turned to the steward and asked, “Is there any almsfood remaining from the monks’ meal?”
    “Yes, Venerable sir, there is.”
    “Then serve this man some food.”
    The steward gave the poor man some of the leftover rice porridge and curries. After he had eaten and rinsed his mouth, his physical suffering was relieved, and his mind became calm. He sat quietly while the Buddha taught a gradual discourse concluding with the Four Noble Truths. At the end of the discourse, that poor man attained stream entry.
    The Buddha offered anumodana, stood up, and left with the bhikkhus.
    Some of the bhikkhus were angry and grumbled, “We do not understand what the Teacher did today! When that poor man came in, the Buddha asked whether there was any food leftover and told the steward to serve him. That has never happened before.”
    The Buddha stopped, turned around, and asked, “Bhikkhus, what are you talking about?”
    They told them, and the Buddha answered, “That’s right, bhikkhus. I came to Alavi, making this difficult journey of thirty yojanas, for the sole purpose of teaching that poor man because I had seen that he was ripe for attaining stream-entry. Early this morning, that man went to the jungle where he spent the whole day looking for his lost ox. When he finally came to see me, he had not eaten at all. I knew that if I were to teach the Dhamma while he was suffering from hunger, he would not have been able to understand it. Therefore, I asked that he be fed. There is no pain like the pain of hunger.” Then he recited this verse:

    Hunger is the greatest disease;
    Conditioned things are the greatest suffering.
    For one who has understands this as it really is,
    Nibbāna is the greatest bliss.
    —Dhammapada 203

    • Thanks, Visakha. And it’s nice to note that the lesson of this story has not gone unnoticed. In traditional Buddhist countries, monasteries serve as centers for redistributing massive amounts of food every day. If you’re hungry, you can always go to the temple and get something!

  3. As Ven. Sugato said monasteries have always offered food and in the west they also offer regular social services and often do community outreach; in all countries where monks and nun reside in and out of monasteries they do their best to meet the needs of those who are in need through many means by caring for orphans (see my facebook sangha friends overseas, many suffering to care for abandoned kids, please help them), educating the young and the adults, offering places for refuge, providing information on health and social well being, engage in environmental friendlly living, teaching others how to live according to the Buddha dharma in daily and public life.

    We are quiet about it. No need to shout on corners or grab media to fill a dish and set it in front of a hungry person, no need to wait fo a group consensus to provide winter wear or clothing for as many as you can, no need for a vote, tvs, or facebook; just our individual efforts to give shelter to orphans in the USA or Nepal, find safe homes for battered women and their families, find and donate pens, pencils and paper to needy children who’se parents can’t pay school fees and pay for supplies; reach out to a burnt out cop on the street with a warm cup of coffee and a sandwich.

    Putting fancy labels on things trying to establish trends in Buddhism is silly when you consider we been active in society as monastics since Buddha’s time.

    What’s interesting about Buddhist Sanghans (monks and nuns) is that rarely much discussion on when or how to help is done, rather it’s about one meeting to make a few plans to sort out volunteers, set aside dana for cost of the action and then carrying it out whether we have a place or enough food, money or people… we just do it.

    • Cut and pasted from Sydney Morning Herald today

      Occupy Sydney protesters are planning to occupy a space in the CBD after rallying on Saturday afternoon, organisers say.

      Over a thousand people are expected to take part in the protest march which will begin at the Town Hall at midday before ending in a rally at Martin Place.

      “The exact location (to be occupied) will be determined by participants during the rally,” a release sent out by the organiser read.

      Occupy participant Ben Peterson said he hoped police wouldn’t use “heavy handed” tactics to remove occupying protesters.

      “Occupy is about having a public discussion … heavy handed tactics from the police are contrary to having that discussion,” Mr Peterson told AAP on Friday.

      “We have no intention of instigating any violence … I can’t say what the police actions will be though.”

      On Friday, NSW police dropped their legal action to stop an Occupy Sydney rally after the activists agreed to change the route of the protest march.

  4. My comment is unrelated to the above discussion, but I was just curious if anyone has any knowledge/personal experience of Mahamevnawa sri-Lankan forest monastery.

    I live in Florida USA and the local Sri Lankan/ White convert community is ramping up to build a Mahamevnawa temple. At first I was very excited at the prospect of having a temple of Forrest monks near my home, but after several events and two different monks I have met I find them to be very fundamentalist. And I dont mean fundamentalist in a historical-critical back to the suttas way, but in a everything in the suttas is literally true way. Every talk Ive every heard them give always focuses on The 32 marks of a great man or the Buddha’s qualities and how we need to have faith in the Buddha and how superior Buddhism is to other religions ect. ect. all of it was very off-putting.

    Is there a branch temple in Australia?

  5. From Naomi Klein:

    “Consciously or not, the Occupy movement has done something truly radical: from the beginning, they have followed the principles of meditation. All of the components of the meditative attitude are reflected in Occupy Wall Street, and they have given us five real-life lessons in how to truly live our practice in the gritty, real world:
    1-RIGHT INTENTION: The first lesson is to stand by what we value, even if it looks like our action will be too insignificant to make any difference. By staying firm while the media initially dismissed and ridiculed them, the first Occupiers gave others the courage to do the same.
    2-FULL ATTENTION: The meditative attitude means keeping our attention on what is, however uncomfortable that might be. The second lesson: stay focussed on what matters, even when it is the equivalent of sleeping out overnight in a cold New York plaza without any guarantees that we’ll get anything but discomfort in return.
    3-BEGINNERS MIND: In a culture that values expertise and sees not having the answer as a sign of weakness, the Occupiers did what meditators do: they resisted the temptation to make demands and instead were willing to be seen not knowing.
    4-UNCONDITIONAL FRIENDLINESS: By focussing on what joins people rather than what divides them, the Occupiers brought together a cross-section of supporters from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. They created an atmospheres of inclusiveness and respect for those who disagree.
    5-COMMITMENT TO THE TRUTH: The point of meditation is to see the truth of reality without the coloring of our ego’s biases. The Occupy movement demonstrates its commitment to the truth by being willing to stay with uncertainty for as long as it takes to reach real agreement—something that can only come when the real truth comes clear to the people involved.
    The Occupy movement makes clear that cultivating a meditative attitude is a powerful and radical act, both individually and collectively. As the reports of police violence begin to come in more and more, we can only hope that the field of non-violent openness that started the movement will be able to withstand the pressure.”

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