Globalization from a Buddhist Perspective.
By Pracha Hutanuwatr
I understand that the current debate on globalization has a broad area of general agreement. This is that globalization is the latest expression of a longstanding strategy of development based on economic growth and liberalization of trade and finance. This results in the progressive integration of economies of nations across of nations across the world through the unrestricted flow of global trade and investment. Beyond these points people participating in the debate generally split into two main camps: those who believe that the expansion of the free market economy will benefit the societies and those who do not.
The mainstream approach is generally the former with the underlying assumption that globalization brings jobs, technology, income and wealth to societies. However these societies must be willing to submit to the principles of the free market -- Limiting public spending, privatizing public services, removing investment, strengthening export production and controlling inflation.
Those against the above policies argue that the "great success story" of globalization production has led to a litany of social and ecological crises. This has resulted in poverty And powerlessness of the majority of people, destruction of community, depletion of natural resources and unendurable pollution. (Power G. 1997 p 76-77)
From a Buddhist perceptive and from the experience of my country, I have to say that my standpoint is closer to the later with the awareness that there is big diversity within both camps and there are people who are trying to work out something in between the two.
We must remember that when we talk about globalization there area other aspects like globalization of the dominating consumer, mono-culture and accompanying devastating environmental effects. One more positive note, all around the world we can witness evidence of the rising consciousness of the inter-connection of ecological systems and the emerging of global networking among civil society.
However from a Buddhist perspective the very core of the globalization process is the globalization of Tanah or "craving". According to Buddhist analysis Tanah is the root cause of all suffering.
As mentioned above, the term globalization may be new but the causes and conditions leading to it are not. Globalization is an expansion and continuation of the ideas of development which is rooted in the belief that the "progress" of humanity is a linear anthropocentric process.
When we look at tanah in relation to this kind of world view we can see that it has created a kind of civilization that victimizes its own people, people of other world views and other sentient beings. Over the last few hundred years this has been happening in the name of industrialization, colonialization and development in both capitalist and communist framework.
As tanah becomes globalized the scale of suffering has vastly amplified around the world. Vast masses of largely self-sufficient third world communities are being rapidly transformed into consumers of capital-intensive goods and services, mainly those provided by the transnational corporations. Whilst a small amount people perceive benefit through an increased standard of living, the majority fall victim to discontent, dependency and poverty. With the increased emphasis on material goods the quality of life of both deteriorates and becomes spiritually void.
From the Buddhist perspective both the anthropocentric element and the belief in progress are basic wrong views. In Buddhism the concept of inter-relatedness is essential. If we seriously consider this, human beings cannot be the "center of the universe". We are just one among many species and our well being depends on the well of other species and the natural environment.
The belief in progress moves from the "present moment". The causes and conditions of staying in the "present moment" or the "Moment of reality" are of prime importance in Buddhism in the art of coping with suffering. Under the "progress" ethos we are stimulated to expect that things will be better in the future at the cost of sacrificing the present reality. This belief in progress is a kind of myth as it promises something that will never be completely fulfilled-indeed the striving to fulfill this myth is the causes of the tanah
For the sake of modernization, ordinary people have been structured to abandon cultures and ways of life that have evolved over thousands of years and are for the most part extremely appropriate to local conditions and environment. Workers have been maouvered to sacrifice their labour for low wages for the sake of industrialization, farmers have been relocated for big infrastructure projects in the name of development and economic growth. In these processes the disruption to living in the "present moment" and the resulting upheaval is given little or no consideration at all.
As tanah increases around the world it is hand in hand with the creation of an almost total consumer mono-culture. This mono-culture is evangelized through the global advertising agencies, the information highway, satellite and cable television and western studios. These huge "dream factories" and "information creators" are coming from an alien cultural base with little relevance to the diverse localities they are beaming their accusative gospel to. Their alluring messages convey an almost totally inappropriate and non-sustainable lifestyle to the most remote corners of the world. The vast majority of people who are manipulated by these messages will never have the means to fully acquire the images portrayed to them so they will feel inferior and culturally backward.
Like the extinct species of the Amazon thousands of years of unique cultures are being lost around the world in the name of globalization and progress. As world culture becomes homogenized traditional art and music forms become under valued and obsolete. All over the world there is a common oral tradition of story telling with vibrant singers and dancers portraying unique tales of seasons, gods and local events. These largely spontaneous artists who's art stimulates compassion, community and solidarity are the heart and soul of local communities. They are now being ousted by the new icons of pop culture like Michael Jackson whose performances to the masses hardly enhance quality of life.
As the transnationals invade into every society they bring with them overpowering media that drowns out the gentler more vibrant local cultural norms. Hence, personal success in terms of wealth, power, recognition and the futile attempts to fulfill unsuitable sensual pleasure are the domineering values in globalized society. The result is an inappropriate form of "western" culture hungry for the unnecessary, overpackaged, standardized products of the transnational organizations. People are taught to compete and compare in the purchase of excessive consumer goods. In short, greed, violence and illusion which the Buddhists can akusalamula (unwholesome roots) in different forms are the norms promoted in the globalized culture.
However, it seems that the negative result of karma is coming back to hit its own sources as we see the situation of unemployment, devastation of the environment and disintegration of family and community values in al societies following this destructive direction. This is resulting in increasing deep criticism and challenges both from within those societies and from people of other civilizations. Some critics even put it dramatically that :
"We are witnessing the end of modernity. What this means is that we are in the process of changes in Patriarchy. (I am male); Individualism (I win therefore I am); Materialism (I shop therefore I am). Scientific dogmatism (I experiment therefore I know better or I have no values thus I am right) and Nationalism (I hate the other therefore I am). This is however a long-term process and part of the undoing of capitalism. All these connect to create a new world which is potentially the grandest shift in human history. We are in the midst of galloping time, plastic time, in which the system is unstable and thus can dramatically transform". (Inayatullah. S. 1997 p.33)
Unfortunately, firstly our elites and later our ordinary people seem to have lost confidence in our own cultural values. We become convinced that our civilizations are inferior though we may pay lip service to the forms of our traditions. People in this state of mind are easily lured onto the consumer band wagon in its many forms. This is especially true of the younger generation who are so much influenced by the media of the multinationals. Today our young people aspire to go to expensive western style schools and inappropriate western style architecture is spawning all over the world. We are abandoning appropriate and traditional costumes in favour of western style clothes. In many cases influenced by the hamburger, pizza and coca-cola type chains people around the world are even changing their eating and drinking habits in order to emulate the "progressive" nations. Sustainable and wise cultural practices are also changing. The Chinese are no longer proud that they abandoned the firegun hundreds of years ago though they had the knowledge to invent it before any western nations, if they chose to. The high ranking Buddhist monks in my country are forgetting the basic teachings of the Buddha to live a simple life in order to search for higher wisdom- these modern monks are competing with each other for the latest model of BMW'S and Mercedes! The lay Buddhist of my generation and my parents generation use Buddhism only as ritualistic function in life and few live a life according to the real teachings. Today most lay Buddhist actually worship money and "success".
Around the world the numbers of single people are rising and the isolated "nuclear families" are becoming the norm. Modern people are becoming more and more cut off from communities, societies and the natural environment. Surly, this cannot sustain itself and over the next generations we will witness further breakdown of societies. Ultimately this may mean the end of the era of modernity although what world view will emerge from the ruins is still unclear.
Problems caused by globalization
Thus it would seem that globalization can mean the spreading of greed, violence and individualism to all corners of the globe. From a Buddhist point of view, when the cultural values of a society are motivated by these unwholesome roots, the society itself will face all kinds of difficulties. Specifically these include corruption, crime, war, exploitation and abuse. Generally they lead to ecological destruction, disintegration of cultural values and the breakdown of all relationship.
This is because, from a non-self point of view, we are one with other beings in the universe, human and non-human. Hence to harm others is to harm ourselves as well. Our social and environmental crises are witness of this law of nature. The inter-relatedness between human moral conduct and ecological balance is clearly stated in the comments on a Pali Sutta. He is commenting on the results of people not acting in accordance with the Dhamma (Law of Nature).
"Now, when the Brahimins and people with money already do not act according to dhamma, the city people and country people do not act in accordance with dhamma, so it follows that both the city and country people do not act according to dhamma. ... When we have reached the point where all people do not act according to dhamma there arise uncertainties, fluctuations and abnormal conditions in all nature: The orbit of the moon and sun is fluctuating and uncertain.... the stellar system has been disturbed by the ambitions of very greedy people, people who do not act according to dhamma."
The Sutta goes on to describe how panjassa (pattern or order) of the
universe becomes confused and this affects the patterns of weather which affect the crops
and in turn the people and animals cannot survive. Buddhadasa comments:
We can see these difficulties clearly happening in all societies as they become touched by modernization. Under the new name of globalization the catastrophe will further intensify. The mad rush towards progress in the last thirty years of development in Siam has left a vast disparity between rich and poor and huge, devastating scars on the culture, the environment and the social norms. It is hard to believe that contemporary Thai values have sprung from a Buddhist culture.
Many aspects of contemporary Siam are frightening examples of all that is wrong with modernization. The underpinning capitalist mono-culture seems a value system almost totally at odds with the traditional Buddhist philosophy based on inter-connection, compassion and awareness of greed, hate and illusion.
Let us start with Bangkok, once renowned as the Venice the East, a mystic city of canals and golden spires - now one of the most polluted cities in the world and a concrete jungle in the truest sense. Bangkok is known to locals as Krung Thep. The city of angles is full of construction sites, ugly new buildings, super highways and shopping malls indiscriminately built and tearing the heart out of local communities. Many huge slum areas have materialized and many people live in very basic shacks which if in the country near a clean water supply might suffice but in the rat ridden, exhaust fumed city are not an abode for healthy living.
To many of the visitors, Bangkok's angles are the numerous prostitutes in what has now become a global center for sex tourism resources mainly by very young, girls from poor rural areas and indigenous hill tribes both from within Siam and neighboring countries. Many of the unsophisticated girls have been tricked or lured into becoming prostitutes by unscrupulous employment procurers who recruit from the villages promising high salaries for jobs in the "entertainment" industry. Most of the girls have little awareness of exactly what this will entail.
This burgeoning of the sex industry has been encouraged by an emerging consumer society advocating instant gratification and spurred on by the example of firstly, the US Vietnam soldiers on R&R and later, the sex tourists who were lured to fill the gap.
The landscape of Siam has been stripped of its trees, the coral reefs destroyed through pollution and plundering, the water in the numerous klongs and rivers of this water-based culture are now so polluted they are unsafe to swim in. The destruction of the rain forests which act as natural sponges during the rainy season has caused extreme flooding. The building of huge dams for hydro-electricity caused thousands of people to lose their traditional, self reliant way of life when they were displaced by these dams to infertile land and lured by government schemes to produce cash crops. Only a few decades ago the culture was still based on rural sustainable agriculture that was inter-dependant with the floods, the farming seasons worked around it welcoming the fertile silt from the floodwater. If a few simple, thatched houses were damaged they were easy to replace or repair from the abundant forests. Nowadays floods are seen as a menace destroying cash crops and causing unbelievable chaos to the already congested streets of Bangkok. In these days of acquisition the fear of floods has a whole new dimension as expensive houses and possessions are in danger of water damage.
How could this happen in a Buddhist society? With few exceptions the monks of Siam are naively welcoming globalization as an unavoidable friend. Many monks have consumer goods such as mobile phone, BMW's and portable computers, many are obsessed with raising money from their newly rich parishioners to build ever bigger Buddha's and useless halls and buildings.
As is the trend around the world, the bright young contemporary minds of Siam are being lured into the fast paced business world with little time or inclining to develop wisdom through contemplation. Young and old Thais alike are victims of the huge promotion of a global monoculture through the actions of the multinationals with the capitalist, individualistic ethos.
Activists, environmentalists and ordinary people affected by big development projects launched campaign after campaign against these tendencies such as the Forum of the Poor protests. The effect of that Thai foreign multinational corporations turned to neighboring countries for timber, hydroelectric dams and other natural resources.
This kind of development truly benefits very few people and even those who become rich often become victims of acquisitive desires which robs them of personal fulfillment. In spite of their "success" in wealth, power and recognition they are still haunted by the sense of lack and basic existential insecurity. A basic fact of life which they never have time to pay attention to. These people expecting instant gratification have lost touch with the art of coping with basic human suffering. This art has been well developed in the Buddhist tradition through meditation practice and is a wonderful tool for ensuring emotionally mature and stable adults. I believe that the art of coping with suffering is not exclusive to the Buddhist tradition-indeed it is an integral part of most traditional religious and indigenous wisdom.
This new kind of suffering spawned, by consumerism which is fueled by the globalization process is happening in various stages all over Southeast Asia, and indeed the world. Even in countries like Burma and Laos the scars of the consumer society are emerging. This is seen in the ugly modern buildings that are starting to appear in Rangoon and Vientiane, the ubiquitous coca-cola available in the smallest villages and in the gentlepeople who feel "left behind" and aspire to western goods they have heard about on television.
Looking at these trends globally, some startling facts of structural violence in regard to economic injustice in the world today are:
20% of people in the richest countries receive 87% of the world income. The poorest 20% of the world's people receive barely 1.4% of total income. Combined incomes of top 20% we nearly 60 times larger than bottom 20%. The gap doubled since 1950 when top 20% had 30 times income of bottom 20%. And this gap continues to grow.
"The thin segment of super rich in the world have formed a
stateless alliance that defines global interest as synonymous with personal and corporate
financial interest of its members. They claim the world's wealth at the expenses of less
affluent people, other species and eco-systems on the planet. This is the true meaning of
global competitiveness competition among localities. Large corporations, by contrast
minimize their competition through mergers and strategic alliances." (Korten. D. 1996
"In the 1960's and before, capitalism needed us, if only to exploit us. They not only needed our land, our natural resources, our forests, our ports; they needed us as workers, to exploit our labor. Now they do not even need us to exploit. We are expendable. So they decided to let us die. To let us have diseases such as cholera, to let us have our shanty-towns around all the major cities where millions of people live. They are creating another type of society, also capitalist, or rather sub-capitalist. It is the Capitalism of Poverty." (Hoidobro, E. 1996 p 36 quoted by Carmen. R. 1997 p 57)
As part of being human we all have a tendency towards greed, hated and illusion. In the modern world this tendency is greatly encouraged, hence the globalization of suffering described above. In a more just and fair society these negative trends are warned against rather than worshipped as something we all should pursue.
An Alternative Buddhist Vision
How can Buddhism contribute meaningfully to the present crisis of civilizations? I suggest that the main contribution will be the Buddhist view of meaning of life and its implications on the kind of society that encourages this.
From the Buddhism point of view happiness doesn't come from trying to satisfy tanha (unsatiable cravings), either for material wealth, power, recognition or sensual pleasure, a trend propagated by the present global consumerism. On the contrary, glorifying tanha will lead to meaninglessness, dissatisfaction and alienation. Happiness and real meaning of life come from the reduction of tanha which will in turn open space for kusalamuta (the wholesome qualities of life) to flourish e.g. compassion, wisdom, generosity, peace of mind. This kusalamuta will connect us to ourselves, our fellow human beings and nature. These qualities of life are considered as ariyadhana (noble wealth) or real qualities that will help us to cope with suffering. Buddhism encourages us to confront this existential suffering in life. In contrast, modern culture offers a way to escape from this suffering in the name of progress with its promises of health, prosperity and consumption. In other words modern culture encourages the satisfying of tanha which is the root cause of suffering. So this is why there is so much suffering in the modern world despite the high levels of prosperity and technological advance.
In an authentic Buddhist civilization a good life could be materially simple and in tune with the natural environment. One would have few belongings and abundant time for meditation, friendship and community life.
A good Buddhist society is one that is dominated by values such as cooperation, generosity, compassion, spirituality and a social environment that supports and encourages the growth of kusalamuta among people. In the idea? Buddhist society the economic, political and cultural structures would support the increasing of these attributes. Of course this is the opposite of the present global trends. From this view point a simple life with far less consumer goods than in the present western norm in preferable. This is because less consumption will ease our lives from material burden and allow us to cultivate kusalamuta.
This doesn't mean that Buddhism rejects material well-being. The point is to know and understand the limits of material well-being but not to let the means become the end, as modern people tend to do. A mantra for this kind of living could be "contentment" rather than "the more the better". this should not be in the sense of rigid ideology by should allow a wide range of modes of ownership with upper limits. At one end of the scale would be people living very simply with the little "material" security such as authentic Buddhist monks and nuns who consumer according to their basic needs but devote their lives to the service of humankind and all sentient beings. These kinds of people can be the guiding lights of a society. Whereas, at the other and are people who only care for the well-being of an individual and their immediate family. They may do so but with an upper limit of ownership that does not allow them to use wealth to exploit others and nature. Greed is not encouraged. between these two poles there can be a diverse range of modes of ownership and enterprise according to individual choice based on the ideas of economic decentralization.
Another pertinent factor is political decentralization. This is because power, like wealth can be used both negatively and positively and the tendency to use negativity is always there. So the smaller the better for political organizations. We have to bear in mind that the Buddha established the Sangha in a very decentralized form without appointing any of his disciples to be the supreme leader of the Sangha in spite of the fact that there were many enlightened disciples around in those days.
As a Buddhist I would draw inspiration from Buddhist tradition to encourage localization/ decentralization over globalization/ monopolization. This kind of localization/ decentralization doesn't conflict with international networking among civil society initiatives if it is not in the spirit of centralization.
Whilst there are undoubtedly many factors, in principle I agree with David Korten's argument that "We do not have a globalized economy because of some historical inevitability. We have it because a small group of people who have enormous political and economic power chose to advance their narrow and short-term economic interest through a concerted well-organized and well-funded effort to rewrite the rules of the market to make it happen. In other words, economic globalization came about as a consequence of conscious human choices. It is the right, indeed the responsibility, of those who were not party to those decisions to reclaim the power we have yielded to those who have used it against the public interest and to make different choices." (Korten, D. p65-66)
Globalization and non-self
Globalization, like anything else, is impermanent and thus non-self and will last as long as causes and conditions allow it. Like all other tempting matters, we need to be aware of both positive and negative effects of globalization. Once we have enough critical awareness that the negative aspect outdoes the positive aspect then we will be able to go beyond or liberate ourselves from it.
At least in my country, the poor are the ones who have seen the negative sides very clearly.
As a Buddhist, I believe that no institution can last long without real moral legitimacy however powerful it may be. In regard to the multinational corporations manipulating the globalization process mainly for their own benefit and creating so much suffering for other people I agree with people who foresee the end of the present trends towards globalization.
The future of the planet can not be and will not be the simple continuation of the present neo-conservative capitalism. That economic system will never deliver the good of development and welfarism to all of us. The frustration and anger of the jobless and of the hungry (and unfulfilled?) will be increasingly corroborated by the loss of confidence by a growing part of humankind in the progress and happiness promised by capitalism and its "development". Immanual Walterstein believes that capitalism my collapse, not primarily because it is lucking economic technology to adjust to the crises but due to the fundamental lack of legitimacy in the eyes of both the north and the South". (Verhelst 1996 quoted by Carman, R. 1997 p 57)
A Buddhist response is not just sitting and waiting for mara (evil forces) to cause collapse. We have to cultivate our parami (spiritual strengths) to liberate ourselves and our communities from this corporate-imperialist process.
In Siam there are a number of grassroots initiatives led by farsighted farmers and NGO workers that are attempting to liberate their communities from the mainstream market forces. Their approach is to return from cash crop agriculture promoted by the government in the last 30 years to primarily growing food for community consumption with only the surplus sold for cash.
Over the last ten years or so some farmers and villages have been experimenting with alternative agricultural projects emphasizing organic fertilizer and insecticide and on a subsistence economy base. After a decade, the improved quality of life can be clearly seen and has become a visible demonstration of a viable alternative.
However the general picture for rural Siam over the last decade is much more depressing. Many, many farmers have gone into debt and bankruptcy through joining the cash crop economy. Thousands of rural people have been relocated from their fertile homelands due to big development projects such as hydroelectric dams and power stations.These are major reasons for the long protests of the Forum of the Poor over the last ten years. With the protests of the poor and the severe problems of the growth oriented economy my country is close to a crisis situation. Many people are starting to look to the few innovative examples of alternative agriculture as a solution, especially among the poor. Prompted by the demands of the Forum, some government departments are planning to cooperate with the NGO's and POs to encourage around 8 millions farmers to join this movement. This is an exciting new direction although it is too early to predict any real and positive change.
As for the middle and upper classes, the falling of the Thai economy may help to awaken people to the real situation of globalization. During the last 15 "boom" years many Siamese worshipped globalization and development as their businesses flourished. Now as the bottom starts to fall out of the economy they are left wondering how they can survive: Many may not yet see that there is now an opportunity for people to develop a true critical self awareness of the dangers of globalization. Hopefully the voice of mindfulness from Buddhist thinkers such as the late Venerable Buddhadasa and Sulak Sivaraksa will be listened to more than those of the secular technocrats and money makers who have been determining the fate of the country for the last half century.
1. Buddhadasa, translated by Olsan, G. (1987) "A Notion of Buddhist Ecology", in Seed of Peace. Vol. 3 No. 2 May 2530 (1987) Bangkok, Siam
2. Carmen, R. (1997) "How much is Enough" in Development The Journal of the Society for International Development Vol. 40 No. 2 June 1997, Rome, Italy Inayatullah S. (1997) "Global Transformation in Development" (the same volume)
3. Korten, D. (1996) "The Failure of Bretton Woods" in the Case against the Global Economy edited by Mander, J. & Goldsmith, E. (1996) Sierra Club books: San Francisco
4. Power, G. (1997) "Globalization and its Discontents in Development" (the same volume)
(The article above was presented at the "Symposium on Consequences of Economic Globalisation in Asia" which was held in Bangkok from 12-15 November 1999. For more information on this symposium, contact firstname.lastname@example.org)