The word “inequality” is one of the most provocative catchphrases of our post-2008 Financial Crisis world. While living standards have been rising globally, wealth distribution is more uneven than ever. Furthermore, political, social, and environmental crises threaten to halt the advancement of middle- and lower-income earners across the world. The increase in relative poverty in post-industrial nations, such as the US or Western European countries (particularly in the Eurozone’s southern peripheries), has had the effect of sharpening public awareness and anger about the lifestyles and priorities of society’s most privileged.
Much healing and reflection is needed on the part of the privileged, the disadvantaged, and those in between—and it needs to be achieved through a concerted effort of constructive dialogue, without resorting to dehumanizing mud-slinging and cheap slogans. While cynics might say that doing this in good faith is impossible, and social activists might demand that blame be apportioned before a solution is prescribed, Buddhism offers reasons to be somewhat more hopeful. While Buddhism initially had little to say about politics or economics, over the millennia it has offered ideas on how relations between the more and less privileged can be improved so that everyone feels a moral duty to treat those from different backgrounds better. The weight of this responsibility, of course, falls more heavily on those with broader shoulders.
Although the Buddha had little patience for the culture of caste within his monastic order, he was not a social reformer in the modern sense. He wasn’t an egalitarian and sought the improvement, rather than the replacement, of the rule enjoyed by kings and princes. What he does seem to have embodied, particularly during his last rebirth as Siddhartha and in the Jataka tales, is a self-sacrificing concern for the vulnerable. The beloved story of the Buddha in his past life as Prince Sattva offering his body to an exhausted tigress’s hungry cubs (and slicing his own flesh when the tigress was too weak to kill him) indicates that he was willing to give up his wealth, family, and life in an epiphany of acute compassion.
This tale hints that the privileged and powerful need not feel guilty or apologize for their station in life. Indeed, the character of the bodhisattva in the Jatakas is always a privileged being, in whichever world he is reborn. At the same time, the parable asks the privileged to be prepared to surrender it all with equanimity when warranted by a serious enough occasion.
Another example of the Buddha’s “self-sacrificing patrician” attitude toward the weak took place during his youth. His cousin, Devadatta, had shot a swan, but Siddhartha managed to reach the injured creature first. Devadatta favored the law of the jungle in which “might makes right,” arguing that he had shot the bird down and therefore owned it. Siddhartha, in contrast, argued that the swan’s life logically belonged to him because he had saved it. They took their case to a sage, who sided with Siddhartha and concluded that a life belongs to the one who tries to save it, not to the one trying to destroy it.
The moral seems to be that the weak and vulnerable can depend on the powerful and owe them something, but this is qualified strongly with the message that the powerful must have demonstrated their munificence in a very tangible and significant way—to the point of literally saving the lives of others. The story suggests that the onus is on the powerful to prove that they are worthy—if they hurt, abuse, or behave toward others in the manner of Devadatta, they are owed neither lives nor loyalty.
Finally, the Buddha’s own example of renouncing material privilege provides another Buddhist vision of societal relations: by becoming a world-renowned teacher, the Buddha turned his back on the ultimate secular privilege of being a chakravartin, or ideal ruler. But aside from the loss of his own royal career prospects, Siddhartha’s renunciation did not affect the rule of the Shakya clan, nor did it herald the overthrow of the kshatriya (warrior prince) order. What he did demonstrate, however, was that even the most comfortable of princes is capable of giving everything up.
A strong person who is self-aware will be mindful that they need to be gentler with others. The wealthier one is, the more generous one ought to be. The more influential, the more exemplary should be one’s behavior. There is a time-tested sense of the patrician’s obligation running through most civilizations and cultures, which has proved to be appreciated by wider society in principle (if not always implemented in practice). The “affluenza” that media reports sometimes cite to explain the phenomenon of boorish and sociopathic rich kids who destroy property, abuse people of lower socioeconomic standing, and even commit manslaughter, is a contemporary symptom of the privileged classes’ neglect of their benevolent duties.
While the stakes aren’t always so dramatic, people of different backgrounds still interact with one another on a daily basis. In big cities, the rich and the poor rub shoulders all the time. During these common encounters, context matters. We can never escape the context we are born into (although in some societies like the US, money and wealth can often define our standing more than family or cultural background); however, we can, through common sense and empathy, ameliorate it and make it more palatable for all.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche offered some good advice on this matter in an interview with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, where he urged that the privileged cultivate modesty, humility, and a sense of responsibility. Referring to the elites of Bhutan, he criticized how parents pick up their children from school in branded cars, warning that this kind of showing off generates “drastic consequences.” He went on: “It’s not a good idea to send your Porsche car to pick up your . . . two-year-old from kindergarten. . . . It creates envy, it creates unrest, it creates resentment. Yes, the resentment is something that we need to watch out.”
He blamed the unrest in many parts of the world on well-to-do elites who had become “totally complacent and spoilt.” Reflecting on solutions, he said: “By all means you should [be well-to-do and rich], but I’m actually saying we should be even more rich, even more abundant. And how to do that? By sharing. But I’m not saying that you send your Porsche car to pick up other kids. By sharing, it could also mean not sending the Porsche car to pick up your own kid. That way, also, individually, your kids don’t get spoiled. And that could be also a good thing for the country [Bhutan].”
In meditation we are taught to observe our thoughts and feelings, without denying them and without attachment or aversion. Similarly, we need to dispassionately observe and work with the society that we’ve inherited, warts and all. We have a duty to one another of mutual care and respect. We should neither be proud nor ashamed of our context—our rebirths in samsara aren’t an achievement. But we need to be mindful of our own contexts and those of others, and of how we can help those in situations less fortunate than our own without being condescending. Meanwhile, we can also explore how we can assist the self-sacrificing patricians that genuinely deserve our admiration.