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No Poverty: The Sustainable Development Goals and Buddhism

Before meals at the Berkeley Zen Center, we recite verses of reflection and gratitude. The first verse says: “Innumerable labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” The same is true for all the things we consume. Often those things travel across oceans, where they were made by people in so-called developing countries, living on wages that are a fraction of what one might earn in the West. When one shops on Amazon, or at Walmart, or almost any chain store, the prices are attractive but these prices are based on the theft of labor and on virtual guarantees of poverty for those distant and unrepresented workers. 

Many of these “third-world” factories contracting with major-label brands—in Bangladesh, China, Haiti, Thailand, and elsewhere—are little more than prisons relying on child labor, with no health and safety protocols and unregulated working hours. While countries such as Bangladesh have an official minimum wage of US$96 a month, that only comes to half the estimated need for food, rent, and medicine. And very few textile workers receive even this minimum wage. 

In the industrialized economies of Japan, Europe, and the US, we are seeing the scars of poverty on our streets. In my otherwise comfortable Berkeley neighborhood, people are building tent settlements along street corners and on patches of greenery and in parks. There are no toilets, showers, or basic amenities available to the growing numbers of homeless people. This is just one face of poverty, the fruit of structural oppression—greed, hatred, and delusion.


In Western minds, the phrase “poverty, chastity, and obedience” shapes our notion of a rigorous religious life. But in the Pali Canon, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Middle Way between rigid self-denial and excessive indulgence. A simple, sustainable, and mindful life should be a choice rather than an imposed deprivation. An early Buddhist text, the Sabbasava Sutta, speaks of Four Requisites for a life of practice and balance: clothing, food, housing, and medicine. Today, more than 700 million people on our planet live in grinding poverty, without access to even these Four Requisites, let alone to the variety and abundance of spiritual teachers and communities available to many of us.  

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—with a target date of 2030—were unanimously adopted by 193 countries at a UN conference in 2015, growing out of more than two decades of work begun at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Their fundamental principle: “Leave No One Behind.” In Japan and around the world, the Soto Zen school is integrating the SDGs into the teaching and practice at their many centers and temples.

The first SDG is “No Poverty.” Two thousand, five hundred years ago Shakyamuni Buddha pictured a world without poverty in the Anaṇa Sutta (AN 4.62), describing a householder’s four kinds of happiness:

• The happiness of earning a livelihood by righteous means;
• The happiness of giving wealth and good deeds freely to family and friends;
• The happiness of being free from debt;
• The happiness of blamelessness, to living without committing evil in thought, word, and deed.

A single definition of poverty does not fit all countries and regions. For the United States, the government’s 2021 poverty guideline is US$12,880 per year for an individual and US$26,500 for a family of four. “Deep poverty” in the US is roughly half the poverty line, so US$6400 for an individual and US$13,250 for a family of four. Worldwide, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a much lower projection: less than US$2 per day. Whether in Africa, Asia, or the US, deep poverty on any terms is certainly not what the Buddha saw as the “Middle Way.” Poverty has its own path: a downward spiral.

In the Digha Nikaya the Buddha explains:

. . . from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife, from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increased . . . (iii 65 ff)

The good news is that in the first two decades of the 21st century, the global poverty rate declined dramatically, from 35 per cent to 9 per cent. But in 2020, poverty increased across the globe as the pandemic, climate change, and regional conflicts affected many millions of people. In 2021, these conditions will drive another 150 million people into extreme poverty.

Modern poverty is a system driven by greed, hatred, and delusion. The essential delusion is that our lives are separate from each other. Contemporary Buddhist practitioners have come to understand that our lives are interwoven in systems and structures. Of course, such social structures are made up of individual persons, but they are also transpersonal, involving complex interactions of groups, communities, governments, corporations, and so forth. But each being and all beings are expressions of oneness. As the 13th century Zen Master Dogen wrote: “The whole Earth is my true human body.” And as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. . . . [We] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“No Poverty” is one of those impossibly large vows, like the Bodhisattva’s Vows to save all sentient beings or to dispel all the innumerable delusions. As in the Bodhisattva Vows or the Mahayana Precepts, the SDGs as vows point in the direction of oneness, providing a place to which we can return. But the work of ending poverty recognizes that the Sustainable Development Goals are like twining vines: vows and efforts that are intricately bound up with each other. We will not achieve a world of No Poverty until we embrace the goals of universal healthcare (3), quality education (4), gender and other forms of equality (5), meaningful work (9), environmental justice (13), and peace (16). 

The SDGs require our personal and individual responsibility to all our sisters and brothers, not turning away from their needs. Buddhists raise up the ancient practice of dana paramita (Skt. the perfection of generosity or giving). In The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas Zen Master Dogen writes poetically:

Earning a livelihood and managing a business are, from the outset, nothing other than giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, and entrusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious action of giving.

But I don’t think Dogen could imagine huge strip-mining machines that tear down whole hillsides, removing every flower and tree. I don’t think he imagined human activity that can alter the climate and change the very seasons themselves. Manmade systems of poverty and oppression require systemic remedies: intervention at every level of society—governmental, industrial, legal, down to our religious centers, temples, and churches. These actions are necessarily social and political. 

Dana paramita—the endless cycle of giving and receiving—points to economic principles quite different from the profit motivation of the exploitative capitalist system. When Dogen Zenji speaks of “earning a livelihood and managing a business” he is well aware of the Buddha’s teaching of “dependent origination.” In simple language, this says:

When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.61)

Where there is extreme, concentrated wealth, there is widespread poverty. Where wealth is moderated, poverty is likewise moderated, and we can move toward social equality. I believe this is the kind of “business” that Dogen had in mind. We do need strategies for the eradication of poverty. Such strategies exist and are constantly emerging. But, in the long run, they depend on the structural and personal moderation of our acquisitive urges and greed. We must envision an economic system which recognizes that we are in this world together. Then, by trial and error and correction, we must put it into practice. Living like this, we can acquire the greatest wealth of all: finding contentment and safety in a world where people and nations aspire to justice and seek equality of resources and opportunity.

 Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
July 2021

See more

Berkeley Zen Center
Clear View Project
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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