Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
Marxists often joke among themselves that they have successfully predicted ten of the last two crises. It truly is an unimaginable transition—a world without capitalism. And yet that is where many scholars, economists, and academics think we are headed. Marxian oracles like Eric Hobsbawm and Immanuel Wallerstein provide predictions for the end of a worn-out capitalism ranging from 15 years to “a very unpleasant” 40 or 50 years. Last fall at Occupy Wall Street, Zizek pointed out the systemic nature of capital’s precipitous decline:
We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, “Hey, look down!”
We are beginning to live between two worlds, in a cultural bardo. And the point should be made that we need to start imagining a new world, thinking of alternatives to this world, or we will very likely end up with something “very unpleasant”: an alliance of police, military and security interests with a very few in possession of consolidated wealth.
Income inequality and the consolidation of wealth are also the consolidation of power, and the threat of violence against the people when the people don’t obey. The consolidation of economic power displayed in capitalism is not necessarily a benign event. The “invisible hand” of the market hasn’t benefitted all peoples. Capital, according to Marx, has replaced organic and traditional relations between people with “naked self-interest,” with “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” And the people doing the exploiting don’t seem much better off than the exploited. In the 1970s, the Tibetan scholar and translator Lobsang Lhalungpa (1924–2008) stopped midconversation while walking with people in San Francisco’s financial district. He surveyed the busy lunchtime scene, looking up, then down California Street, and finally observed: “I don’t see any humans here.” Roaming the streets of the financial districts, it is sometimes hard to escape the feeling that we live in a land of well-dressed hungry ghosts.
The materialism and affluence of the West was certainly a new and unknown condition for the Buddhist pioneers who scouted the West and studied our culture. Now 50 or 60 years into Western Buddhism, there has been a shift in emphasis from a critique of rank materialism to the need for a Buddhism free of, say, the old Tibetan or Japanese cultural forms, one suited for Western sensibilities, one without “Asian cultural baggage.”
But the truth is that the entire world is much more “Western” now that capitalism is globalized. The world is merging with capitalism’s materialist zeitgeist: globalization isn’t just about commodity, production, and consumption—it is about culture, too. Some Buddhist teachers who have set up schools in the “West” pretend to critique aspects of American culture, but they are mostly superficial attempts that leave the root culture of late capitalism’s pervasive materialism firmly intact while adopting the technological fascinations of the moment. As Buddhist teachers and practitioners sort out the essential teachings from their own “cultural baggage”—the “blinding influence of culture,” as one teacher recently put it—are they aware of the forces of speed, chaos, alienation, and technological magic of late capitalism? Are we aware of the forces of capitalism?
My favorite image of Buddhism’s modern challenge appears in Chögyam Trungpa’s autobiography where he recounts an important lesson about the subtle seduction of the force of materialism that he received from his guru, Khenpo Gangshar. Escaping Tibet following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, Trungpa was about to climb into the back of a truck—his first experience with a motorized vehicle—when Khenpo Gangshar grabbed him and warned, “You know how strong material forces are: now you are having one of your first direct encounters with them. Study what you are; don’t lose yourself. If you simply get excited about the journey, you will never find out what we are really up against.”
What are we really up against? Car and trucks are nothing now; faxing is an antique technology. What is the speed and seductive force of a Chinese truck bouncing along a dirt road at 15 miles an hour compared with smart phones, the internet, tweets, and the consumer’s life of instant gratification? Many teachers and adepts have exposed some of the cultural overlays of imported Buddhism and simultaneously unearthed aspects of the essential teachings. But we need to ask the same questions about Western culture if we wish to “see beyond cultures.” In many respects it is easier for us to see the Tibetan or Japanese cultural components of Buddhism than it is to see the American capitalist realities at work.