Helen Norberg-Hodge speaks with adakhi women. Courtesy The ISEC.
Helen Norberg-Hodge speaks with adakhi women. Courtesy The ISEC.

There can be no compassion without wisdom. Indeed Buddhism teaches that wisdom and compassion are the two wings of the bird of enlightenment. By nurturing a compassionate heart which supports and is supported by an awareness that all “things” are empty of inherent existence, we can transcend our narrow sense of self and experience ourselves not as limited static entities but as part of a web of relationships. Few have combined compassion and wisdom with the brilliance of the great ninth-century Buddhist sage Shantideva, who taught that all the joy that exists in the world comes from wishing for the happiness of other sentient beings, and all misery from narrow egotism. To the extent that we care only for ourselves, he assured us, our lives will be filled with suffering. Could this, the heart of Buddhist teaching, ever be more relevant than it is today?

Today, fifty of the world’s largest economies are corporate, not national economies; almost all primary commodities, such as coffee and cotton, are controlled by six giant companies. The global economy they control is managed by giant transnational institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These organizations are unaccountable to any democratic constituency.

Quite reasonable ideas have contributed to the rise of this system: The notion that trade is in everybody’s interest, for example, lies at the heart of the global economy. As a consequence, a broad spectrum of institutional pressures—from investments in infrastructure and research to regulations and direct subsidies—all promote trade for the sake of trade. As national governments have invested so much in trade, they have in fact supported the development of a transnational corporate system.

Today’s global economy, then, is made up of giant transnational corporations which by their very nature have but to generate maximum profits in as short a time as possible. Because of pressure from investors and shareholders, these corporations are forced to subordinate other priorities. There is little room for social, ecological, or spiritual values.

Today, cultures based on very different values that have existed for millennia are being amalgamated into a consumer monoculture. Even Buddhist societies that have sought to embody the notion that kindness and compassion should be at the heart of all human speech and actions are being undermined by the rampant materialism of the global economy. An unceasing tide of Western media, advertising, and cinematic propaganda is descending on these ancient cultures. Cleverly targeting the youngest members of society, these images promote the “new,” “modern,” “cool” way of life.

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