“Bad Apples?” Buddhist Commodities and Power Relations
Power and Privilege
In a letter recounting a sexually abusive relationship which involved a well-known Buddhist teacher and one of his female students, the following phrase was used.
“You should have mentioned this privately.”
The teacher was rebuking the student for making the situation public. That phrase points directly to the problems inherent in many Buddhist sanghas in the “West” (for want of a better term). Some may object to the phrase “many Buddhist sanghas,” preferring to view instances of exploitation as the product of rare “bad apples.”
I think that is a little naïve.
We are bathing in “bad apple” juice. The conditions that allowed these “rare” occurrences to blossom and fruit so fully are all around us.
The teacher expresses a preference for privacy. When a person is in a privileged position, rather than addressing an uncomfortable issue, the first reaction is often to address the violation of their privilege. That privilege includes dictating the terms of interaction. Here privacy could be a shelter from social embarrassment and shame. The luxury of privacy is one of the myriad aspects of privilege.
Privilege is the major benefit of possessing power.
Privilege ethics, that is those with power getting to determine what is ethical and what is not, is a form of control, like privacy or dictating terms of communication. Privilege appears wherever there are hierarchical power structures. The powerful in those structures are not only allowed to dictate the terms of social exchange, but are expected to.
Under capitalism, exploitative hierarchical power structures are the norm in daily interactions. These hierarchical power structures are based on the ownership, production and exchange of goods and services, and whatever is required to produce those goods and services. Value is assigned to property through these exchanges. The assignation of value is commodification. There’s more to it, of course, but these interactions are known as the society’s relations of production. Institutions within societies emulate the broader relations of production of the society they inhabit in a recursive way. Such institutions include everything from family structures, to the organization of work places, to religious bodies.
When we consider religious bodies in terms of capitalist relations we might ask, “What is being produced and exchanged in the Buddhist institution?” and “How does that affect the interpersonal relations within a sangha?”
The Buddhist commodity
A soteriological result, meaning salvation or deliverance, is the stated primary “product” in any religion. In the Buddhist context, that is a relief from suffering caused by attachment to a reified ego concept.
In a Buddhist institutional setting, whether formal or informal, there are various other ancillary benefits that derive from participating in this process of soteriological production. These include:
- stress reduction
- goals and means to those goals
…and similar psychological, social and emotional benefits.
In the capitalist system the soteriological process and it’s ancillary benefits have become increasingly commodified. Rather than a soteriological process, we have soteriological goods. Many of these ancillary benefits have been commodified as commercial goods in the forms of:
- costly retreats
- therapeutic regimes
- courses and workshops
- books and magazines
- group pilgrimage travel trips
- fashionable accoutrements
- home decorating themes.
Those are the most tangible products, but there are others that are bought and sold with social capital. They include status, recognition, security, and desirable positions in the hierarchical structure.
These goods are often both produced and consumed by the spiritual workers — that is, meditators, retreatants, and the general sangha membership who contribute, often for no financial compensation, their time and work.
We can particularly notice this form of exchange in the tendency to quantify parts of Buddhist practice. This includes things like counting number of days spent at retreats, quantities of books read or written, number of minutes spent in meditation, number of teachers encountered, the relative fame of these teachers, number of prizes won for Buddhist related activities, number of listeners to a podcast, number of articles in the Buddhist media by or about the subject, number of well-known Buddhist names dropped in conversation, etc.
It is in the way we exchange that we come to define our systems. Capitalist forms of exchange employ exploitation for profit. That profit can show up in many forms. Currency may be an obvious one, but there are other forms of social profit.
Chögyam Trungpa made this pretty clear when he spoke of “spiritual materialism.” This materialism is the means of exchange of goods, both material (in the physical sense) and ideological (in the sense of social and human capital). These other forms of profit, the non-currency variety, yet with assigned value nonetheless, and the social relations that govern their exchange, are what is involved in privilege and the exploitation of others. We can “gain” prestige, recognition, respect, attention, adoration, love, hate, jealousy, fear as well as material goods.
What we end up with is many people looking to buy some fish rather than to learn and develop the means to fish.
The Teacher’s Profits
The role of the teacher is one of gate keeper of the production process. It is one of ownership of the authentication of the soteriological process and validation of the authenticity of all associated goods and services. Those in this powerful position have the final word on who gets to know, who gets to speak, who gets to learn, who gets to move up the hierarchy and ultimately who is their equal expressed by way of dharma transmission.
The teacher and their chosen peers, or near peers in the form of senior students, by overseeing and validating the soteriological production process are seen, by themselves and by others, as being entitled to some sort of profit in the endeavor. Sometimes these profits come in the form of social accolades such as receiving special publications put out in their names or having monumental gates built to commemorate their roles. Sometimes these profits come in the form of publicity and renown. Sometimes there are no boundaries in terms of what benefits are deemed appropriate for leaders to accrue and these can and have extended into the realm of the personal lives of followers including massive financial donations and sexual favors.
The Buddhist institution cannot be anything but a replication of the larger capitalist structural context unless and until participants consciously interrogate both the external realities — root causes of oppression, in all its various forms — and the internal realities — such as intention, perspective, attachment, and the psychological apparatus which would have us construct personalities or social beings whose behavior emulates and often glorifies these greater oppressive structures.
The System Stinks: And We Are Not Separate
We are not different from our social and material circumstances. We cannot be external to either of those. The individual and the society function simultaneously together. The material and the ideological function simultaneously together. They cannot function apart in human existence. We can however, on any of these levels disrupt the malfunctioning of the co-existent processes. We can instigate action, even revolutionary sorts of action at both social and personal levels. These are not discrete domains. The social is personal, the personal is social. Both are political in that power is exercised by certain groups upon certain other groups.
We start with the interrogation by way of questions. It requires a certain amount of relentlessness, sincerity, ethics and compassion. The latter two are particularly important because without them we are not fully conscious of the structures, on large or small scales, that we are both dismantling in the case of the old, and building in the case of the new. Without ethical and compassionate insight we end up with some all-too-common problems:
Dysfunctional, oppressive sanghas exploiting sincere participants;
Psychologically and emotionally damaged individuals and social relations;
Twisted Dharma used to fulfill agendas fraught with malfeasance and duplicity;
Narcissistic leaders with seemingly unlimited power and influence within their spheres.
Changing this requires a willingness of any and all participants to take full responsibility, not only for our own actions but for our participation in all of the larger social structures. That which dominates, that which oppresses is ourselves. We are the system. We are the status quo. All of us. This is where the personal manifests the political. This is where the uncomfortable friction lies. We chafe at the notion of losing independence or lacking agency, but independence is an illusory property of samsaric consciousness. To put it another way, we are who we are taught to believe we are.
We don’t want to admit the fact of interdependence. The friction and the subsequent problems come not from us rubbing against the world, but from our insistence on trying to remove our illusory reified notions of self from it. We do this in the capitalist system by believing and behaving like capitalists. We do that by exploiting, by allowing our social relations to continue to be conditioned by capitalist-based hierarchical, divisive, power driven relationships that are based on competition, accumulation and greed.
There is no interstitial space between “I and Thou.” If we sincerely hope to relieve our own seemingly solitary suffering it requires a relinquishment of denial (aversion), of unquestioning obedience (delusion), and of utterly self-serving practices (greed). Only by doing that can the full potential of all be realized and remnants of the dysfunctional and exploitative be discharged to maximum effect. We can only do that if we are willing to realize we NEED to do it, not as individuals but ultimately as a species, in order to survive.
This relinquishment happens when we begin to inquire and are willing to accept the results of that inquiry.
Marnie L. Froberg is a Canadian born writer and activist who has studied and practiced Buddhism for several decades. She writes the blog Smiling Buddha Cabaret and her work has appeared in numerous venues including on The Buddhist Channel.
This post appears as part of June’s series, “Sex, Gender, Power”: a systemic take on the Third Precept of Buddhist ethics. BPF’s year-long curriculum, The System Stinks, brings spiritual activists together to explore the Five Precepts on a collective, social level.