MADISON, Wis. — An Eastern religion whose principles have spread to western consciousness in recent decades, Buddhism and Buddhist perspectives are becoming increasingly popular in the developed world.
Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion. Roughly six to seven percent of the world’s population practices Buddhism. However, contemporary Buddhist ideologies may help to shed light on how human beings perceive poverty. Created by Buddha some 2,500 years ago, Buddhist practice involves the recognition of the physical and psychological causes of suffering in the world and the need to accept and confront such suffering. According to Zen teacher and professor David Loy, while many different denominations of Buddhism exist, the goal of the Buddhist path is to end one’s ‘dukka’ or ill-being.
“Poverty means lacking the basic material requirements for leading a decent life free from hunger, exposure and disease,” Loy said in article he wrote several years ago.
He describes the basic needs of a monastic life in the Buddhist tradition as sufficient food, clothing, shelter and health care. Yet a person living in an impoverished state could not provide such sufficient possessions for themselves. Those who consider living a monastic life forgo many of the common pleasures and possessions of the average person. However, there is a difference between a monastic life and a life of poverty.
“Buddhism values detachment towards material goods in commending having less wants and virtue,” said University of Peradeniya Professor Emeritus of Pali and Buddhist Studies P.D. Premasiri in a paper published in 1999.
Premasiri says that rather than wanting to fulfill more desires and wants as a solution poverty, Buddhist thought suggests otherwise. According to him, “Poverty, as ordinarily understood, consists in the non-possession of the basic material requirements for leading a decent life free from hunger, malnutrition and disease.”
Though often considered to be a state of unmet material wants, the elimination of poverty in the material sense is only one kind of poverty. Poverty can also exist in the psychological sense, and Buddhist thought states that this dimension of poverty may be more harmful than the material state. Yet, because Buddhism views all things as possessing no essential nature, “poverty” as it is commonly understood may not actually exist.
This is according to Peter D. Hershock, an expert on such Buddhist perspectives. Poverty may be a result of people unable or unwilling to contribute to their respective communities in meaningful ways. Whether they possess the social or financial standing to do so or not, Buddhist thought states that poverty manifests itself when the impoverished lack assistance to help alleviate their suffering. Common in Buddhist belief about poverty is the need to measure impoverishment with an open mind. Rather than considering only the lack of material needs, Buddhism acknowledges the need to consider the moral quality of one’s life.
Buddha, the ancient figure who created the principles of Buddhism upon seeking enlightenment, once said that poverty “is a cause of suffering in the world.”
“From the Buddhist point of view the elimination of poverty needs to be demonstrated by the establishment of a society free of crime, social tensions, wars and conflicts where people can live in harmony, friendship and peace,” Premasiri said.
Suffering, which ties together the different ideologies of Buddhism, is therefore significant in poverty. While some may not agree with the more theological aspects of Buddhist teachings, characteristics of Buddhist thought are applicable to attaining a better understanding of how poverty affects the hundreds of million who suffer from it.
– Ethan Safran
Sources: University of Cambridge, Upaya
Photo: Lets Travel Somewhere