The presidential election in the Republic of Belarus this month was expected to go to the challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who attracted huge crowds at rallies and had energized the youth of the nation. Instead, the incumbent autocratic leader Aleksandr Lukashenko announced a landslide victory claiming more than 80 per cent of the vote in an election that observers have described as neither free nor fair.
The result has been widespread protests across the country as well as international criticism. In the midst of this, Lukashenko’s response on Wednesday was simply that the protesters were “people with a criminal past who are now unemployed” and he told them to get jobs. (The New York Times)
Lukashenko’s response was at once cynical—miscategorizing many of the protesters who are professionals, students, and laborers simply tired of his mismanagement of the country—and realistic—the COVID-19 pandemic has led to economic upheaval and widespread unemployment around the world.
The terms employment and unemployment as we use them today are relatively recent in human history. The South African academic Michel Clasquin traces the term “unemployed” in its contemporary sense to Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1667, and adds that it was not in common use until the 19th century.* This makes sense, as organized labor and governmental tracking of jobs would have meant little in pre-industrial societies. So it should come as no surprise that neither the Buddha nor later Buddhist thinkers and reformers discussed the phenomenon of unemployment.
Yet here we are, in the midst of the greatest economic slowdown since the Great Depression (1929–33) and potentially on the edge of even greater disaster as nations grapple with reopening schools and universities as cases of COVID-19 rise in waves across the world. Lest we forget: the 1918 influenza pandemic saw an early first wave in June and July of that year before dying down for three months and then raging back to kill five times as many people between mid-October and mid-December. Health officials are already warning of catastrophe if governments do not enact strict guidelines that are well-followed this fall.
How can we, as Buddhists, respond to the particular issue of unemployment facing uncounted millions today and perhaps many more in the months ahead? To begin, it is worth clarifying that Buddhism offers a path toward awakening based on the cultivation of morality, meditation, and wisdom. Much of the path deals in abstractions and it is up to practitioners to apply this to their daily lives.
Juggling our understanding of Buddhist wisdom and practice in the midst of economic uncertainty can be incredibly difficult. Acknowledging this is itself an important first step. One of our problems, as Michel Clasquin points out, is that we often adapt and live within a consumerist worldview instead of a Buddhist one. In a consumerist worldview, being unemployed is generally a sign of a failure of some sort. This, he points out, is a root cause of suffering, clarifying:
But when I say that unemployment will be eradicated by solving its root cause, which is our society’s excessive emphasis on matters economic, am I not avoiding the distress caused by the lack of economic opportunity and engaging in a sterile academic exercise? In short, am I not merely defining unemployment out of existence? In a sense, yes I am, but that sense, I would maintain, is the same sense in which we, as a society, have already defined unemployment into existence. Poverty and unemployment are not the same process at all. (Buddhism and Unemployment)
We, as a society, can solve poverty without worrying about employment or unemployment. Clasquin’s essay was written in 1992, well before the notion of a universal basic income (UBI) became popularized through a series of publicized experiments and in the presidential platform of US democratic candidate Andrew Yang. Nonetheless, Clasquin suggests that the Buddha’s sangha represented a sort of UBI that we could draw from today, wherein we ensure that all people have the basic requisites for life.
The Buddha addressed the problem of unemployment in a sense in the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the story of the monk with dysentery. In the story, the Buddha encounters a monk who has been left to lay fouled in his own urine and excrement. The Buddha asked him what his illness was and why no one was helping him. “I have dysentery, O Blessed One,” the monk responded. “I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.” (Access To Insight)
After ordering nearby monks to fetch water and care for the monk, the Buddha instructed: “If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.” (Access To Insight)
This simple admonishment, this rebuke of selfishness, set the Buddha apart from the guidance of so many contemporary economists who attempt to derive wisdom purely from the desires of individuals. While the Buddha’s teachings on things like karma and moral transformation are at times profoundly individualistic in the sense that we each are responsible for our past deeds and future development, his teachings on our treatment of others is profoundly communal and egalitarian.
In fact, were the Buddha alive today and cared to comment on contemporary politics or economics, he may not support a UBI and might instead propose a universal basic treatment, in which basic foods, medicines, clothing, and lodgings would be directly provided to all without the need for money as an impersonal intermediary. Clasquin suggests that “what we must get rid of is the idea that only those who are economically active, and who are therefore worthy in our eyes and according to our definitions, need to be assisted with food, shelter, and culture. We who are “employed” may have to scale down our own expectations, but would that not be a worthwhile renunciation if it abolished the specter of poverty which hangs over our heads like a Damoclean sword too?” (Buddhism and Unemployment)
Caridad Martín Nieto, a meditation and mindfulness instructor in Spain and an editorial contributor to Buddhistdoor en Español knows firsthand of the debilitating effects of unemployment. She was hired by a city in Spain to teach meditation as part of a program to help those who had lost their jobs. “My experience with the unemployed was difficult because they are people in general who have lost their self-esteem and most of them find themselves with a certain depression, all this due to the loss of a job,” she told Buddhistdoor Global.
Recounting his firsthand experience with unemployment, Tibetan translator and journalist Joshua Eaton wrote poignantly of his struggles in 2011, after graduating from Harvard university in the midst of America’s Great Recession. What surprised him most in his period without a job was his emotional life and the depths of the difficult emotions that surfaced. And yet he also connected his individual turmoil with the greater societal realities around him: “Suffering and delusion are always my suffering and delusion. They are always personal, always private, and always necessitate a private remedy. What I often forget, though, is just how much social, political, and economic structures really do affect our ability to practice the Dharma. . . . We need to understand that when we support political, economic, or social structures that engender hatred, anxiety, despair, and jealousy in others, we’re making it infinitely more difficult for them to develop wisdom and compassion. Good works are so rare in this world; we cannot afford to shatter them.” (State of Formation)
Employed in the modern economic sense or not, the Buddhist teachings tell us that all beings deserve to be cared for. And the teachings tell us that all of us have value as buddhas-to-be, so if we encounter joblessness and the ensuing despair, we can know that this is not all there is: our worth derives not from our employment but from our own actions in how we treat others and cultivate our own lives. So as sangha members and as citizens, let us take care of one another and seek to set in place systems that will ensure the care of all for generations to come.
* Clasquin, Michel. 1992. “Buddhism and Unemployment: A Conceptual Reappraisal of Social Classification Systems.” Academia.edu.
For Belarus Leader, a Fading Aura of Invincibility (The New York Times)
Kucchivikara-vatthu: The Monk with Dysentery (Mv 8.26.1-8) (Access to Insight)
Class Consciousness: The Spiritual Cost of Unemployment (State of Formation)