The Buddha was an ordinary human being who lived a remarkable life. An Indian prince, he gave up everything in search of the truth. The truths he discovered speak to us across all cultures and ages. He discovered and taught that human dissatisfaction is caused by three “root poisons” of the mind: greed, ignorance and anger. The Buddha also taught that we can move beyond these poisons and wake up to reality. In fact the word Buddha means “one who is awake”.
We can see how greed and ignorance have contributed to current economic conditions. Recent events in the financial markets and economy have undoubtedly been a “wake up call”. People are suffering from financial losses and from uncertainty and fear. A new reality is dawning and it has been a shock. The Regan-Thatcher years are dead due to the widespread acceptance that unchecked markets do not best serve us.
During those years people were encouraged towards selfish greed. Bankers became greedy for profits and became more creative about making money from nothing - inventing new financial schemes, mortgage products and ways of “offsetting” risk. The result of these developments? A full blown asset price bubble followed by the inevitable bust: collapsing asset prices, mortgage foreclosure, unemployment and business bankruptcy. It is clear no risks were offset, merely swept under the carpet until the world economy tripped over it.
Wisdom cuts through ignorance. The last three hundred years or so has seen mankind develop a wealth of knowledge and skills to manipulate our environment. Knowledge and skills are not wisdom though - indeed they can be applied in unwise ways. From today's economic situation it is clear that financial skills and knowledge have been applied in unwise ways.
It is not only a short term lack of wisdom that troubles us. This world has finite resources and for a long time lone voices have been pointing out the impossibility of permanent compound economic growth. The ecology movement has grown up during the last forty five years or so and has cohered to become politically influential. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of international institutions, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer - and the environment continues to degrade.
These issues need to be addressed and slowly the economic paradigm is shifting. We need now to develop the wisdom to use our knowledge and skills properly. We must learn to live in a peaceful and sustainable way. This will demand the development of a new economics based on “simplicity, need and sufficiency” and not on “complexity, greed and power”. It will involve massive social, economic and financial change. It will take time.
For these reasons we need to develop compassion not just for the starving, but for the super-rich, bankers and politicians too, because if we are to solve the underlying ecological and economic issues – which can not be separated - these people will be experiencing more change than any of us.
Matthew Jee is a former stockbroker, merchant banker and financial publisher. In 1997 he left the world of finance and worked on a Kibbutz in Israel. Two years later he became a Buddhist under his Tibetan Master, The Venerable Khandro Rinpoche. Matthew now writes under the pseudonym “The Irreverent Buddhist” and is the owner of a non-sectarian internet discussion forum for meditators.