20 January 2012

You say you want a revolution?

DemmingJohn Lennon asked this question and concluded that the way to have a revolution was not to change the world, but to "change your mind instead". In this he was probably influenced by his Hindu guru. Behind the idea that we should give up trying to change the world and focus solely on changing our mind lies a fatalism about the world on a larger scale, and indeed a fatalism about what any one individual could achieve. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita (3.35)
śreyān svadharmo viguṇaḥ,
paradharmat svanuṣṭitāt.

Your own duty performed badly is more auspicious,
Than the duty of another performed correctly.
i.e. don't mess with the order of things.

This is not a sentiment I share and in this essay I'm going to assume that some of us still want to change the world. If you don't then look away now. In 1991 I studied library management at Victoria University in New Zealand. In my studies I read about the quality "revolution" in industry especially in Japan in the 1970's. I went on to participate in quality circles in service organisations (mainly libraries) and even went through an ISO 9000 registration, so I saw the theory put into practice. In this essay I'm going to compare some observations about the so-called "quality revolution" in Japan in the 1950s, with some observations about the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. Finally I'll use these disparate case studies to try to illuminate a problem that Western Buddhists face. Inevitably this will be too large a task to do justice to in this format, and I'm relying on my memory of books read decades ago. But here goes...

In the aftermath of World War II, the USA poured money into Japan to rebuild its economic base. Some politicians had learnt the lesson of post-WWI Germany, and, despite having bombed Japan into submission with weapons of mass destruction, the Allies were keen not to leave a ticking bomb in Japan as they had in Germany in 1918. So they rebuilt Japan with a constitutional democracy and an economy based on manufacturing. This proved to be quite successful. However, Japanese goods initially had a deserved reputation for being shoddy. When I was growing up in New Zealand there was a certain amount of racism influenced by the bitterness of our parents after WWII (many of us had relatives who'd spent time in Japanese POW camps). We unselfconsciously referred to Japanese cars as "Jap crap". But the fact was that, despite our bias, their manufacturing standards were much lower than the Brits or the Americans at the time. Indeed in NZ in those days we prized British engineering, but that is another story, and one that did not end happily.

How the Japanese turned this around and became the world's leading manufacturer of automobiles, and in the process more or less destroyed the British, and crippled the US car industries is a fascinating story. I want to focus on the contribution of W. Edwards Deming. He was a management theorist and academic who thought a lot about how to improve manufacturing. His ideas initially received a lukewarm response in the USA. After all no bombs had fallen on the mainland and they did not need to rebuild. As Bill Bryson has observed they simply switched from making tanks and bombs to making cars and fridges over night and continued on at the same rate. The USA was enjoying the first of many post-war booms, and was milking it. So industry leaders would send their middle managers to Deming's seminars, while they themselves never got to hear his ideas directly. Without the involvement of senior management America's corporate culture could not and did not change.

However in Japan the situation was different. When Deming started going to Japan not long after the war, it was soul-searching chief executives, fresh from having lost a quest for world domination, who went to his seminars. This lead to a change of culture in Japanese companies, and by the late 1970's to the emergence of Japan as an industrial giant: they still have the 3rd largest economy in the world (after the USA and China) despite the vicissitudes of the last two decades. Deming's big idea was quality control. Building quality into the process, and using quality control meant that they created fewer defective items, and shipped fewer to their customers. In my lifetime the reputation of Japanese cars, for instance, went from execrable to excellent. In my childhood virtually all the cars on the roads where British or Australian made. By the time I was an adult one in four cars was a Toyota with a fantastic reputation for reliability, and most cars were Japanese.

Deming was not solely responsible for this transformation, but the way that Japanese business leaders took on his ideas and changed their organisations is in direct contrast to what happened in the USA. The Americans eventually caught on and took up his ideas, but the damage had been done to US industry by then. It is now a shadow of its former self, and will probably never recover. The British car industry just died, helped on by Victorian labour relations. Although some UK luxury brands are still in business they are no long British owned. Land Rover is now owned by India's Tata motors, and Bentley by Germany's Volkswagen Group! (Oh the irony!)

My other case study occurred in the same country, but many centuries earlier. In the 6th century the Japanese nation as we know it was still being forged. The Japanese national identity was in its formative stages and they still looked to China for the lead in cultural matters. The ruling elite were educated according to Chinese models: they studied Chinese language, classical Chinese poetry, and the works of Kǒngzǐ (aka Confucius). The conversations of the literati were peppered with allusions to Chinese poets. The Japanese court was modelled on the Tang Chinese Court, both in the layout and architecture of the building, and in the structure of the government. Government officials even dressed according to Chinese models.

In about 552 a Korean King presented the Japanese Emperor with a statue of the Buddha, and some monks who told him about Buddhism. While it was initially divisive Buddhism became the state religion with patronage from Empress Suiko (592-628) and her regent Prince Shōtoku (573-621). Japan was in crisis with loss of territory and allies on the Korean Peninsular along with a flood of Korean refugees. Behind this was the aggressive expansion of the Chinese who also threatened to invade Japan. Now the Buddhism being transmitted at this time was not a religion of personal salvation. Though they may have found it attractive personally, the aristocracy of Japan adopted Buddhism mainly for political reasons. In texts like the Golden Light Sutra and the White Lotus Sutra, Buddhism promised magical protection for rulers and nations that supported it by propagating the sutras.

In outlook the Japanese ruling class were distinctly Confucian. The Emperor was Emperor by divine right, hence his title (copied from the Chinese): Tenno 'Son of Heaven'. And in this worldview the physical world would be ordered only if the political world was: if the Emperor was good and just (by the standards of Kǒngzǐ) then the nation would be protected from natural disasters and the people would be happy. The Chinese imperialism of the day (and both Chinese and Japanese imperialism in modern times) was seen in terms of extending the benevolent order of the Son of Heaven to chaotic barbarians. Which is not so different from Western imperialism.

Order in the royal court equated to order in heaven, and therefore order on earth generally. Keep in mind that then, as now, Japan was particularly susceptible to natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami (itself a Japanese word), floods, and typhoons were (and still are) common. Added to this the Japanese were almost constantly at war with the aboriginal people of the islands, the Ainu, whom they were displacing from Honshu Island toward the far North. With the added threat of invasion they needed protection, and Buddhism promised it.

Anyone familiar with Mahāyāna texts will be familiar with the offers of protection in them for anyone who recites, copies, or upholds the sutra. And this is what the Buddhism of aristocratic Japan consisted of. The Buddhist monasteries were employed to recite and copy sutras. A later emperor more or less bankrupted the state with his temple building program following a series of famines and natural disasters, and the recovery took centuries.

The upshot of this was that Buddhism became a national religion with the Emperor as sponsor. To be sure it continued to co-exist and syncretise with Shinto, and Confucianism remained at the heart of their political philosophy. We know a lot less, in English publications anyway, about how Pure Land Buddhism became absorbed at the popular level, but by the 9th century it was common for the eclectic wandering holy-men and healers to include elements of Buddhism in their spiels. Had it only been a religion of individuals, making their own personal revolutions, and raising themselves beyond the circumstances of their birth, I have no doubt that the Japanese ruling classes would have ruthlessly stamped it out. Their idea of order was strictly and inflexibly hierarchical and everyone stayed in their place. One could only become a monk with state approval, and the clergy and monasteries were a government department from the beginning. I haven't space to explore it more fully, but the pattern was repeated when Kūkai and Saichō introduced esoteric Buddhism into Japan in the 9th century. It was the interest of the royal family which secured the place of esoteric Buddhism in Japanese history.

The moral I am seeking to illustrate is that by converting leaders rather than followers, both Deming and the Koreans who introduced Buddhism into Japan, ensured the successful establishment of Buddhism in new domains. My understanding of Buddhist history is that this story is repeated down the years in India, China, Tibet, Sri Lanka Thailand etc. Except in the last 200 years and the introduction of Buddhism into the West. Here Buddhism was introduced not to the ruling elite, but to an intellectual elite. It was subsequently spread to the middle classes, but has not made much impression either amongst the leaders and decision makers, nor amongst working class people. I've lived in the UK for the last 10 years so my view is particularly informed by this still class-ridden (and -riven) society, but I think this observation holds true in New Zealand as well, and from what I can gather something similar has happened in the USA, and across Europe.

The only place I know of that has been different is the reintroduction of Buddhism to India, initiated mainly by Dr Ambedkar and his followers, which has taken root in the lowest socio-economic groups: the Dalits. However in India Buddhism has remained largely a religion of the oppressed classes, making little headway outside that group. And they are largely dependent on help from Europe and Taiwan to fund their activities because they are typically amongst the 400 million Indians living in poverty.

So though Buddhism has steadily grown in Europe and America, and helped by the exiled Tibetan community generated lots of good publicity, the possibility of a Buddhist revolution seems as far off as it ever has. After 200 years just 0.3% of the British population called themselves Buddhist in the 2001 census (results of the 2011 census come out this year). Most of our politicians and economists still seem to be in the grip of neo-conservative ideologies, often inspired, directly or indirectly, by the mad ideas of Ayn Rand and her disciples who denied the good of altruism, and elevated self-interest to the status of a sacrament. They dressed their ideology up as 'rational' though clearly Rand herself was at times highly irrational. Neo-cons persuaded many leaders and decision makers that perusing self-interest leads to the greater good - a philosophy that tends to appeal to ruling elites. As a result the rich are certainly richer, but sadly the poor are poorer. There really is no sign that the self-interest of the rich benefits society as a whole, and plenty that it is detrimental.

Buddhists, practising Buddhists, remain a tiny minority in the west. Probably less than 1% of the population even with the explosion of interest in our techniques. We have very little influence. So when some of my colleagues say that they teach mindfulness in a corporate setting I am both cheered and suspicious. If we are going to make a difference to the world, then we must influence decision makers. But I suspect that those corporate settings are middle-management with influence down the chain and not up. Just as with Deming in American they probably won't make a difference. We need to be teaching CEOs not middle managers. And we do not have a successful competitor to spur us on.

There are those who recoil at the idea of politically engaged Buddhism. The arena of politics is one that seems to taint and corrupt everyone who enters it, or even watches from the sidelines. I am dismayed at the stupidity and self-interest of politicians across the spectrum of political ideologies. There is no politician I can think of that I do not see as part of the problem. And yet we Buddhists toil away teaching (on the whole) the middle-aged and middle-classes. Their concerns are typically: stability, financial security, family, career, and so on. By the time they come to our centres they are heavily encumbered with obligations related to these concerns. It is not that they are unworthy, or unwelcome, they aren't, but history shows that a vigorous core of unencumbered men and women is required to lead Buddhist movements lest they become overly concerned with stability and security (this appears to be true of monastics as well!)

One of the responses to this acknowledged problem is to try to reach out to "young people". Though I notice that the current definition of "young" is stretched to the point of near meaninglessness. In my mid-forties I only just don't qualify. The phrase puer aeternis keeps floating through my head. While I agree that the obvious response to an ageing saṅgha is to recruit youngsters, I think we have to take a wider perspective. Reaching out to youngsters (and I think of people younger than 30 at the outside) may well help us survive the inevitable decimation as the Baby Boomers generation fades away. But we want to do more than fill our meditation and Buddhism classes. We want to change the world, we want all living beings to be well and happy. Don't we? Buddhism in all it's forms is revolutionary and has transformed most of Asia (though the continued enthusiasm for Buddhism is not assured) so why not the world?

One question we might want to ask ourselves is why the children of Baby Boomers have not taken up Buddhism with the same enthusiasm as their parents did? In Britain the summer of love was replaced by the winter of discontent (and reading about it you wonder how we can not have learned the error of spending more than we earn!). Donovan gave way to Johnny Rotten. Vote buying Labour governments capitulated to Neo-conservatism. And so on.

I believe that we must change ourselves, that I must change myself. It is imperative that we make ourselves exemplars of the good life. But I'm not convinced that we will create a revolution this way. I may (at a pinch) inspire my little circle, but the reach of my influence is limited. I think we must learn from history and reach out to people with wide spheres of influence, people who make decisions, who create policy, who are widely trusted. We must make them aware of how our ideas can contribute to everyone's well being. Opposing leaders in the West is probably important, but ultimately it achieves little. What we need to do is convert our leaders, and we stand a better chance that other kinds of ideologues such as eco-activists because our interest is not limited to ideology or single issues. In 10 minutes of sitting quietly we can demonstrate that a different approach to life itself is possible.

This is not to say that popular movements aren't useful, though Buddhism is not that popular compared to say bird watching in the UK. We have a problem in that the compromises we make for Buddhism to appeal to a wider audience often strike serious practitioners as counter productive. There's a lot of criticism of "Buddhism lite" for instance, or "Consensus Buddhism" as David Chapman calls it. Buddhism at the popular level has always appealed to the concerns of the masses and focussed on virtue rather than transformation - though a (re)focussing on virtue would be a positive thing for contemporary British society! Buddhism as a practice leading to transformation and freedom has always appealed to a much smaller audience because it is so demanding - traditionally it has demanded renunciation for instance. In the West where everyone is an elite of one, we might have a chance of getting everyone to practice towards freedom with all of the benefits that accrue along the way. I think this would make the world a better place, and provide an environment where the more dedicated and determined practitioners would be supported to pursue liberation, and provide leadership.

Our predecessors sought audiences with kings and emperors and convinced them of the benefits of Buddhism. This more than any other factor is why Buddhism became established in Japan, and China, and Tibet. So every time I see a world leader meeting with the Dalai Lama, I smile. I'm not one of his followers; I don't always agree with his doctrines or his aims; I'm not particularly inspired by Tibetan forms of Buddhism. However he gets to meet presidents and prime ministers. And that is precisely what we need to be doing if we're going to change the world. Perhaps in Britain, since no one trusts politicians any more, we should be thinking in terms of talking to the monarchy about how we can improve the lives of their subjects?


My thinking in this essay is also influenced by Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. And by the Adam Curtis's TV documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
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