Awakening to the Shadow Side of Affluence

Poverty is a social disease, not an individual sin. Jesus understood this truth. The radical and untamed Jesus of the gospels was poor and disenfranchised. He lived among, taught, and healed the diseased, the powerless, the hopeless. Today, we would likely find him living on our streets ministering to the forgotten people who have no place in our society except as detritus and nuisances.

Being poor, Jesus understood poverty. Being oppressed, He understood powerlessness and injustice. Yet Jesus offered a message of hope. His way of love, if truly embraced, turns the social norms of an injust society on its head. In His realm of love, the weak and vulnerable are more precious than the powerful and successful.

In our own Buddhist way, we can understand that Jesus was a Bodhisattva — a being whose entire life was focused on the wellbeing of others. This does not challenge the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ), but rather gives us Buddhists an opportunity to embrace the working of Amida’s Unconditional Compassion in its many forms.

The Buddha Shakyamuni — the historical Buddha — was not poor. He came from a privileged social class. He had access to wealth, power, and influence. Even after Shakyamuni left the palace and became known as the Buddha, he retained connections with his former life. He was often surrounded by other disaffected members of the aristocracy, many of whom were related to him. Unlike Jesus, the Buddha Shakyamuni and his community (Sangha) were supported by the wealthy and powerful of his time. As a result, Shakyamuni and the Buddhist Sangha had an interest in maintaining the status quo.

While the Buddha certainly offered an alternative way of life — a tremendously liberating one — he did not challenge the structural violence and injustice of society in the confrontational way that Jesus did. (Remember, Jesus was executed for sedition.) The Buddha’s revolution was more explicitly internal, than the one Jesus offered.

Buddha Tending the SickThe downside of this emphasis on internality is that compassion and love, the two dynamic activities of the religious life, are often practiced in a general and non-specific way. Buddhists have compassion for all beings, but may not do anything about the suffering on their doorsteps. Buddhists vow to save all beings, but rarely challenge the social structures that perpetuate the suffering of so many.

While a vibrant inner spiritual life is important, we exist within a complex social structure. The reality is that our lives in the affluent West are environmentally unsustainable and greedy. We consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, which are often acquired through social and economic systems that perpetuate poverty, violence, and discrimination.

Jesus’ life bears witness to this shadow side of affluence. As Buddhists, we can learn a lot about the world of privation and oppression from Jesus’ life. It can show us how to ground our compassion, meditation, and profound insight into the reality of the sufferings of the weak and vulnerable. Jesus can remind us that the work of Bodhisattvas is messy, uncomfortable, and dangerous. And Jesus can make us uncomfortable in our spiritual smugness when so many in the world have so little. Jesus reveals to us the brokenness of a social system that values power and wealth over life and love.

Cultivating compassion — daily — is important. Compassion, however, must be honed through tangible action. As Dostoyevsky famously wrote in the Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” As Buddhists, we need to acknowledge our tradition’s bias towards the wealthy, educated, and comfortable. We must recognize our tradition’s tendency to cultivate a generalized compassion that is uncoupled from real world hardships and distress.

Compassion and love are relational. Jesus’ life demonstrates that compassion and love are meaningless outside of tangible actions towards real people — many of whom are hurt, confused, scared, and often difficult to be around.

Christians can learn a lot from the Buddha. However, on the issues of inequality, privation, and social injustice, we can learn much from Jesus about the need for a grassroots, compassionate awakening that seeks to radically transform society for the benefit of those who have nothing.

Peace, Paul

Tags: , , , ,

4 Responses to “Awakening to the Shadow Side of Affluence”

  1. Dr Bob Rich Says:

    Paul, I exactly agree with you. Of course, you mightn’t know that Jesus was Gautama reincarnated.
    🙂
    Bob

  2. Bela Johnson Says:

    I agree that Jesus was a Bodhisattva. Also that compassion needs to be ‘honed through tangible action.’ We have so much compared to many in other parts of the world. We are not rich monetarily, but we give constantly in so many ways. Good post, I wish many would read this and awaken to their own spiritual disparities. Aloha.

  3. Bobbing Around Volume 17 Number 10 | Bobbing Around Says:

    […] Poverty is a social disease, not an individual sin. Peace Paul […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: