PESC-3: Environmental Education and Education for Socio-Economic Development
3.2 Sulak Sivaraksa : Alternatives to consumerism- a Buddhist programme
(Nuremberg Forum, 28 September 2000)

 
Sulak Sivaraksa is probably Thailand's most prominent social critic and activist, and one of the major contemporary exponents of socially engaged Buddhism. He has for the last about 40 years combined intellectual work with continual grassroots organising. He has founded rural development projects as well as non-governmental organisations dedicated to exploring models of sustainable, traditionally-rooted, and ethically- and spiritually-based development. He was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. The “Alternatives to Consumerism”-Project in the whole of South East Asia is looking for visions and actions alternative to the cultural and intellectual “colonisation” by a global economy. It is in close connection with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, but among the participating groups are also Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities from South East Asian countries.

Much consideration has been given to the relation between Religion and the State, but what about our relation to economic dynamics? Multinational enterprises accrued power surpassing governments’ scope while using methods of psychological manipulation that changes the worldview of citizens and core values of cultures. „Consumerism” can be defines as the religion of consumption attributing ultimate meaning to purchasing power. Economic growth at the cost of the poor has become the driving force of globalisation even though world leaders try to hide the face by cosmetic measures and rhetoric.
Undeniably, the fuel that keeps the capitalist engine running is profit: the more of it, the better, the argument goes. Hence, corporations must be free to pursue it—at all costs. The ends justify the means. It is also argued that the profit generated by the system will eventually trickle down to benefit the mass of humanity. The available evidence points otherwise. To be fair, capitalism does generate some benefits to humanity, but they are largely unintended by-products of the system. 
Capitalism works by exploiting labour and natural resources in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of an elite group. For maximum results, capitalism alienates humans from their communities, families, and ultimately, their spiritual selves  by posting worth solely in terms of economic value. The atomistic individual, rather than a larger community, is at the centre of the capitalist system. Consumerism is able to dominate much of contemporary society because individuals have become  alienated from their culture and from each other. The sense of community that led  people  to share scarce resources  and work co-operatively has been supplanted  by the vile maxims of the masters of mankind, by an anger and competitiveness that causes people to seek acquisitions at the expense of their neighbours. In sum, consumerism is a consequence of using greed and violence to regulate socio-economic relations.
At the most profound level, consumerism owes its vitality to the delusion of the autonomous individual self; a self that exists independently of social relations and of human relations with nature: a human person thrown into the world. For the Buddha is was clear that the ‘self’ constitutes only a pattern of persistently changing experiences that had no more substance or permanence than those experiences.
We are deluded into seeking some transcendental subject, something that defines experience yet lies beyond the experience. We are exhorted to know ourselves and yet the ‘self’ in this dualistic system remains unknowable. For the Buddhists, this delusion is the fundamental cause of suffering. Ontologically, we become estranged aspects of our experiences of others and ourselves. Hence we are precluded from any meaningful conception of identity.
Consumerism provides an artificial means of defining our existence by suggesting that identity is realised through the process of acquisition. Put differently, consumerism is a perverse corollary of the Cartesian proof of personal existence: “I shop therefore I am.” We are deluded into seeking some transcendental subject, something that defines experience yet lies beyond the experience. We are exhorted to know ourselves and yet the ‘self’ in this dualistic system remains unknowable. For the Buddhists, this delusion is the fundamental cause of suffering. Ontologically, we become estranged aspects of our experiences of others and ourselves. Hence we are precluded from any meaningful conception of identity and consumerism or insatiable consumption is equated with ultimate happiness and freedom, with self-realisation. As David Arnott, an English Buddhist, explains 
“By participating in the sacrament of purchase, sacrificing money, we can buy  an object that is not so much an object as a focus of images which grants us a place in the system of images we hold sacred. For a while when we buy a car we also buy the power, prestige, sexuality, success, which the advertisements have  succeeded in identifying with the car, or whatever the commodity is. Consumerism works by identifying the sense of unsatisfactoriness or lack (dukka) we all hold at a deep level of mind and then producing an object guaranteed to satisfy that ‘need.’”
Capitalism depends on greed, delusion, and hatred in order to become entrenched in society and in the individual and is thus, anathema to the goals of Buddhism. When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relational idea ‘self’ the result is greed selfishness. Neoliberalism rhetoric deludes people and international organisations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumerism deludes people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness. Lastly, competitive consumerism  depends on callousness and hatred to prevent people from forming coalitions to challenge the existing system. Hatred is a force which paralyses and  prevents self-transformation and co-operative strategies.
In Buddhism, prosperity is defined as “more being.” As such, it cannot be realised atomistically, only collectively and with an emphasis on spirituality.  Buddhism denounces and renounces greed, because it is seen as leading one down the perfidious road of aggression and hatred—in a word, of suffering. Greed can never lead to satisfaction, individually or collectively. Thus Buddhism seeks to show how to be content with changing oneself—that is, self-cultivation—and emphasises the importance of caring about, promoting, and benefiting from one another’s wellbeing. Whereas capitalism treats a person as only half-human—the economic dimension e.g., greed, hatred, and selfishness is cultivated to the exclusion of other considerations—Buddhism approaches a human person holistically. The mind and heart must be cultivated, and diversity must be nourished in social relations and in human relations with nature. A human person is an „interbeing“ existing within a web of relations that includes all sentient beings.
In contrast to the modern notion of frantic, ceaseless consumption, the Buddha said that tranquillity is the most important prerequisite for self-cultivation and self-criticism, for the true understanding (prajna) of the self. It should be pointed out that understanding is different from intellectual knowledge, since it is filtered through both the heart and the mind. Understanding helps the individual to recognise his or her limits and to be more humble. At the same time, it promotes loving kindness and compassion: the individual will be in a better position to witness the suffering of others and to help eliminate the cause of suffering. Of course, when one tackles the cause of suffering, particularly in an oppressive social system, one usually gets hurt. Here bhavana (mindfulness) facilitates the understanding of such danger as well as the forgiving of the oppressor. The oppressive system is hated and will be destroyed, but the oppressor will neither be despised nor executed. If one is aware of one’s anger, then one can envelop it with mindfulness, thereby transforming it into compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh says that anger is like a closed flower; the flower will only bloom when deeply penetrated by the sunlight of bhavana. The constant radiation of compassion and understanding will eventually crack anger, enabling one to perceive its depth and roots. Likewise, bhavana will fully open the flower buds of greed, hatred, and delusion.  
Instead of basing all interpersonal relations on social obligation or an economic calculation about what we can gain from another person Buddhism uses the principles of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion),  mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity) to be the guiding forces in interpersonal relations. These Four Sublime Abodes (Brahma Vihara) are as follows:
Metta or loving-kindness towards oneself and others. Yes we all desire to be happy and have every right to do so. Nevertheless, through practising the precepts and meditation, a different state of happiness can be achieved. It is a state of happiness where the mind is harmonious with oneself as well as with others. It renders assistance and benefits without ill will and without the malice of anger and competition. Once one is tranquil and happy, these qualities will be spread to others as well.
Karuna or compassion can only be cultivated when one recognises the suffering of others and, consequently, is driven to bring that suffering to an end. Undoubtedly a rich person who does not care about the miserable conditions of the poor lacks this quality. It is terribly difficult for him or her to develop into a better person. All those who lock themselves up in ivory towers in the midst of a shockingly unjust world cannot be called compassionate. In Mahayana Buddhism, one vows to become a Bodhisattva and forgoes one’s own nirvana until all sentient beings are free from suffering. In other words, one cannot remain indifferent. Rather one must endeavour to help others and alleviate or mitigate their suffering as much as one can. The essential characteristic of any healthy community/society is its principle of inclusion. As we become more attuned to compassion as the instrumentality of social organisation, we can embrace the community.
Mudita or sympathetic joy is a mental condition whereby one genuinely rejoices when others are happy or successful in a number of ways. One feels this without the flame of envy even when a competitor gets ahead.
Upekkha or equanimity refers to the state in which the mind is cultivated until it becomes evenly balanced and neutral. Whether one faces success or failure, whether one is confronted with prosperity or adversity, one is not „moved” by it.

The Four Sublime Abodes are to be developed step by step from the first to the last. Even when one is not perfect, one must set one’s mind toward this goal. Otherwise, in one way of the other, one’s dealing with the self or with others will tend to be harmful. Moving towards happiness and tranquillity rather than towards worldly success and material progress, a Buddhist is then in a position to develop his or her community—the family, neighbourhood, village, etc. An individual who is awakened by these realities is called Purisodya. Once this awakening is gradually shared with others ultimately the whole nation may be awakened to the threats posed by capitalism, including its ethos. 
Moreover, in a time of moral emergency like now, the Buddhist teaching of the Four Wheels may serve as useful antidotes to the detrimental values of capitalism. As a cart moves steadily on four wheels, likewise human development should rest—and this point cannot be overemphasised—on the four dhammas, namely, Sharing, Pleasant Speech, Constructive Action, and Equality. 
One must share (dana) what one has with others—be it goods, wealth, knowledge, time, labour, etc. Capitalism on the other hand upholds the dictum “all for myself and nothing for other People,” in Adam Smith’s telling phrase. Powerful transnational corporations control the access to essential commodities such as food, drugs, and technology. Yes they are all made available to us—for a high sum of course. To a large extent, dana is still practised in most village cultures. We should strengthen the concept of dana and spread it to counteract the invasion of materialism and the ethos of competition by sharing, by leading less commercialised lifestyles. 
Pleasant Speech (piyavaca) not only refers to polite talk but also to speaking truthfully and sincerely. Its basic assumption is that everyone is equal. On the contrary, consumerism or the culture of capitalism, which will be dealt in greater detail below, posits that less commercialised lifestyles are inferior. People must be deceived to consume goods and services that they do not really need in the name of ‘high standard of living.’ 
Constructive Action (atthacariya) means working for one another’s benefit. Here again it is antithetical to the dynamics of the corporation. A corporation does not work to benefit its employees or the town or city it is situated in. Rather, it is only geared towards enriching the large shareholders. For instance, it seems that every time a corporation “downsizes,” the price of its shares would skyrocket. Thereby new rules must be promulgated whereby investors that have high stakes in the wellbeing of their localities are rewarded.
And finally Equality (samanattata) means that Buddhism does not recognise classes or castes, does not encourage one group to dominate or exploit the other. The global economy however creates a small caste of “winners” and mass hordes of “losers.” The winners take all, and their action is deemed perfectly legitimate under the banner of “free trade” and “free competition.” Hence, we urgently require “fair trade” not free trade. 
The four divine abodes and the four dhammas are meant to act as guidelines for living a life consistent with a Buddhist understanding of freedom, drastically apart from a capitalistic notion of choice as the ultimate expression of freedom. Merely having a wealth of choices is not freedom. We must make the right choices—choices that show compassion for all and which are not motivated by greed. For Buddhists, the ideal of freedom is threefold: the first freedom is the freedom to be free from insecurities and the dangers of poverty, disease, famine etc. The second freedom is social freedom and the freedom from human oppression and exploitation; such a state presupposes tolerance, solidarity, and benevolence. Lastly is the freedom of the inner life, the freedom from mental suffering, from impurities of the mind that propel people to commit all kinds of evil. 
Engaged Buddhism (or “buddhism with a small b”) has become a living alternative movement within Buddhism to put into practice the ideals of Buddhism and allow more people to have access to an alternate conception of freedom. In the current Ariya Vinaya project (“rethinking discipline and lifestyle”) new impetus is given to the growth and inner strength of “engaged buddhism” and the opportunities for shared learning between monks, nuns, and lay people. 
In December 1997, the Alternatives to Consumerism programme brought together a great diversity of persons and organisation striving to realise alternatives-to-the-mainstream in a range of professional fields and cultural sectors. Representatives from many traditions came together discuss the causes and symptoms of consumerism and visions for the future. The irony of globalisation is that it has facilitated improvements in technology and the dissemination of knowledge which can be used to subvert current institutions. The sharing of information, experience, and vision serves both an inspirational and practical purpose. To know that others are united against consumerism is to understand  the potential for change from the bottom up. The Alternatives to Consumerism gathering drafted a declaration of intent to encourage the growth of varied local alternatives in education, trade, industry, agriculture and politics and promote and strengthen communities which are inclusive, self-reliant, holistic and supportive of each other.
The Assembly of the Poor is one such organisation. Mind-deadened and long-subdued , that is how the Thai ruling elites generally perceive  the country’s poor, an attitude that is similarly shared by their counterparts elsewhere. The emergence of the Assembly of the Poor proved wrong their assumptions, and the ruling class feels irritated and frustrated, if not threatened. The rabbles are no longer in line. As the Assembly put it, we are not satisfied with being nothing more than cheap cheering crowds in electoral games...” The Assembly of the Poor has a history of protests against injustices and externalities resulting from the government’s developmental policy and economic globalisation; for example, forced relocation without adequate compensation due to the construction of dams, industrial pollution, and increased indebtedness of small farmers who are being uprooted by giant agribusiness. The Assembly is perhaps an unprecedented movement in Siam and is one of the bright signs of the emergence of non-violent grassroots democracy in Southeast  Asia. It is a sustained grassroots movement that first became visible in the mid-1990’s, but its origins are rooted in the early 1980’s. The Assembly is an amalgamation of seven distinct networks, representing almost every region in Siam and comprising more than half a million members. At the heart of the Assemble are urban and rural small-scale agriculturists and manual labourers. They form the absolute majority in the movement. Non-governmental organisations, environmentalists, responsible intellectuals, students, and some individuals from the business community strengthen the sinews of the Assembly. Simply put, the movement is able to transcend class and regional divisions; a significant portion of the middle class, which has traditionally tended to serve as buffers between the rich and the poor and hence perpetuating the elitist and unjust system, now supports the cause of the poor. Together they help voice the grievances and advance the interests of the poor in mainstream politics.
Things did not have to turn out this way. To a certain extent, the poor could have mitigated their material and psychological plight by becoming oppressors themselves--- by exploiting each other and letting hatred and greed dictate their actions. Instead they chose to fight for justice peacefully and collectively. They chose to survive and fulfil themselves by caring about, promoting, and benefiting from one another’s wellbeing.  Perhaps they realised that when the oppressed become oppressors, the system of exploitation is hideously perpetuated.  And this cruel system must be destroyed through the organised and concerted efforts of all concerned people.
The Assembly of the Poor attempts to influence leaders and policymakers about the negative impacts of globalisation and fast-track capitalism.  For instance at the end of the UNCTAD meeting, the Assembly of the Poor along with other People’s Organisations issued the People’s Declaration, which reads: “Our aim is to make it known that the poor have been severely affected by the implementation of governmental policies, which are emphasising trade profits rather than the preservation of our natural resource base or the sustainability of our local communities. We expect that our voices are heard during the session so that the delegates of all governments would become aware of  our problems, and would unite to tackle them ..”--- a plea that went unheeded.
Mainstream critics of People’s movements often say that the protesters, just like  corporations, are driven by self-interest and economic preservation.   Of course, the protesters demand compensation and the right to use local resources for their own wellbeing. However, they are propelled by a vision of a more democratic and sustainable society; that is, one that is more just, participatory, transparent, compassionate, co-operative, and respectful to the natural environment.
What measures have the assembly taken? Collaborating with non-governmental organisations and social activists, they are trying to establish communities that are by and large self-reliant, self-sufficient, and participatory; that live in harmony with the natural environment; that engage in voluntary simple life-style; that are content with their cultures, identities, and (as it turned out, more appropriate) lifestyles; and that are concerned about broad issues of justice, locally, nationally, and internationally. All these suggest that the Assembly’s conception of happiness stresses “more being” not “more having”: to them prosperity is seen as “well being” not “well having”.
The relationship between non-governmental organisations and activists, on the one side, and core members of the Assembly, on the other side, is symbiotic and non-hierarchical. The leaders and advisors of the Assembly work closely together to identify activities that will strengthen the people’s movement and build sustainable and self-reliant communities. For example, the NGO’s and activists share knowledge on launching sustainable alternative agriculture, community businesses, financial management and accounting, and conflict resolution skills while the core members of the Assembly share their knowledge of indigenous agriculture, internal community networks, traditional values, and simple lifestyles. Furthermore, this symbiotic relationship will also strengthen the role of civil society in the broader national context. Local co-operation with NGO’s and activists will lead to more participation by the poor in the state’s decision-making process.
Self-reliance was one of the hallmarks of Southeast Asia—and Buddhist---communities. Facing alternatives to market dependence and consumerism does not mean living in holes and digging roots to eat? Self-reliance builds on the vision of Mahatma Gandhi that was of production by the masses, not mass production. As Satish Kumar explains, “Mass production is only concerned with the product, whereas production by the masses is concerned with the product, the producers, and the process.” The sustainable community economic model emphasises local production for local consumption (e.g. via the establishment of credit unions, co-operative shops, and appropriately scaled income-generating businesses). Money must circulate locally as much as possible: local currencies must be launched. Since priority is given to meeting local needs rather than to exporting of fulfilling the needs of the rich in urban areas, this means that industries and businesses are small-scale, taking from the environment no more that is locally needed—hence, for example, the emphasis on natural farming. Most importantly, the model must include participatory management approaches, must foster solidarity, co-operation, and teamwork within the community. It must be noted that there is no specific blueprint  for setting up sustainable communities: each community must  draw on its unique strengths of  resources, culture, and diversity in order to be successful.
Near Pak Moon Dam, thousands of Assembly members have long been gathering on a rotational basis and have, consequently, established a protest settlement. The Assembly has protested here for many years, previously in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the construction of the dam and later to gain fair compensation for the loss of their livelihood. The government has reneged on the compensation for many relocated families. This settlement has been gradually experimenting with aspects of self-reliant and sustainable community, thereby making a huge improvement in the quality of life there. For example the following initiatives have been implemented at the protest settlement:
· A group was formed to open a traditional healthcare centre that offers herbal sauna, traditional massage , and medicinal herbs to the members of the settlement;
· Several community businesses emerged. Producing for their own consumption, only the surplus is sold, thus meeting the needs of the members and reducing the amount of money flowing out from the community. Income generating enterprises include the production of natural shampoos and dish-washing liquids, herbal teas and medicines, natural vegetables, microbe fertilisers, soy milk, and vegetarian food;
· A youth environmental group was established; and
· A pre-school centre that is run by volunteer teachers was built.
The establishment of these programs at the Pak Moon Dam settlement demonstrates how Dhammic ideals can be put into practice and is a testament to the current capabilities and the future potential of the Assembly of the Poor to have a substantial impact on Thai models of development. 
Last year, the small scale farmers of the Assembly created their own University of the Poor , a forum to freely exchange current environmental, socio-economic and political concerns and to learn from one another’s experience. The University of the Poor is linked with the Midnight University which is pioneered by a number of progressive professors at Chiang Mai University, as well as with the Spirit in Education Movement, a non-governmental organisation with which I am involved.
The Spirit in Education movements strives to counter the ideals of consumerism by educating children to become compassionate and productive members of society. In Siam, the Children’s Village School is an alternative education community for children who have been orphaned or come from very poor families, some of which were also abusive. The founders of the school  believe that each child can thrive and blossom when given enough love, attention, freedom, and the assurance that their basic needs will be met. Instead of a narrow focus on intellectual reason and skills for employment, alternative education engages the whole child, including will, heart, and mind. The capacity for intellectual reason is only meaningful within the context of understanding and compassion for one’s community and the environment. The children at the school learn about self-government and environmental education through hands-on activities. The self-government system allows them to settle their own disputes, to propose, amend or annul rules, and to decide on everyday matters of living together. Through natural and organic farming they learn about the balance of nature independent of any attempts to control and mismanage nature. The teachers at the Children’s Village School live, work, and play with the students in a co-operative environment. Alternative education is a critical factor towards creating a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.
In this Culture of Peace- framework, comprising alternative politics, alternative agriculture”, alternative business, alternative medicine, alternative community development, and alternative education, wholehearted co-operation between the diversity of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions is essential.  We must let our common goal of creating an alternative guide us towards greater collaborative alliances. A fresh common effort to shape inter-religious education—especially in the context of education reform now common in many countries; as well as joint outreach of emancipatory and community based education fully involving the poor and underprivileged—should be undertaken without delay. 
 

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