Artwork from the cover of Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit.

Artwork from the cover of Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Copyright 2004 by the authors.

ON Monday, President Obama answered questions at a CNBC-sponsored town hall on the economy. Ted Brassfield—a thirty-year-old law school graduate who cannot find enough work to pay the interest on his six-figure student loans, much less start a family—asked an especially pointed question:

Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you . . . and that inspiration is dying away. It feels like the American Dream is not attainable to a lot of us. And what I’m really hoping to hear from you is several concrete steps that you’re going to take moving forward that will be able to re-ignite my generation, re-ignite the youth who are beset by student loans. And I really want to know, is the American Dream dead for me? [emphasis mine]

While different in content, Velma Hart—a middle-class veteran, wife, and mother who works as AmVets’ CFO—asked a question that was similar in tone, and just as pointed:

[Q]uite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for . . . and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.

. . . I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn’t be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure.

. . . I have two children in private school. And the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives.

. . . But quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we’re headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly, is this my new reality? [emphasis mine]

It should go without saying that there’s a deep, deep fear among working- and middle-class Americans about their future, and that of their children. I have friends with advanced degrees from Harvard who can translate three or four languages and know several trades yet are applying for jobs as janitors or security guards. A few days ago, my fifty-something mom mentioned in passing that she’s worried about money but doesn’t think she can work a second job right now. A friend recently recommended to me that I make ends meet by participating in medical studies. America is not simply hurting; she is groaning. And while the majority of the country is just trying to keep from drowning, billionaire hedge fund manager and CNBC contributor Anthony Scaramucci—a former classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School—made it clear that an infinitesimally small minority of Americans have quite different concerns:

I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a piñata. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we’ve been whacked with a stick. . . .

. . . . When are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street piñata?

Scaramucci is not alone. The town hall also featured a video in which Ken Langone—a billionaire venture capitalist and former director of the New York Stock Exchange—complains about the administration making “people in business feel like we’re villains or criminals or doing something wrong.” Bill Maher points out in today’s Huffington Post that the fabulously rich Ben Stein, Steve Forbes, Meg Whitman, Michael Bloomberg, and Stephen Schwarzman have all been vocally, publicly, and, in some cases, sensationally complaining about the woes of wealthy Americans.

• • •

In the Suratapariprccha sutra, the bodhisattva Surata discovers a gold bell made at the beginning of the æon, a bell worth more than all the world. Being a bodhisattva, he decides to give it to the poorest person in the city. The plot twist comes when he chooses not the city’s impoverished elder, but the fabulously wealthy King Prasenajit! Everyone is, of course, baffled, not least of all because Surata approaches the king while he and his retinue are counting the royal treasury. Surata explains himself in no uncertain terms:

If one has a treasury of billions
And yet, due to greed, is still unsatisfied,
He is like a great ocean,
Which never has enough
Of the myriad streams it swallows.
Such a fool is the poorest of the poor.

If such a fool allows his greed
To grow, spread, and perpetuate,
He will always be needy
In his present and future lives.

He then proceeds to upbraid the king for his stewardship of the city:

Such a senseless manifestation
Who is monstrously greedy
And amasses riches insatiably
Is called the poorest of all.

Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
And punish the innocent for no reason.
Infatuated with your sovereignty,
You never heed
The future effects of your karmas.

While you enjoy power in this world,
You do not protect your subjects,
And have no pity
For the poor and suffering.

You indulge in women’s company
Without any fear of falling
To the miserable planes of existence.
You are not even conscious
Of your outrageous wickedness—
Are you not poor?

If one practices mindfulness diligently
And delights in self-control,
He is called rich and noble,
And his wealth and goodness will bring him
Eternal peace and joy.

As a roaring conflagration
Never has enough wood to consume,
So, O King, your avarice
Is never satiated.

As the water can always engulf more clouds,
And the ocean never overflows with water,
So are you, O King,
Never satiated.

As the sun and moon
Incessantly course through space,
So you, O King, will never rest
In all of your life.

A wise person, though,
Like roaring flames
Insatiably devouring wood,
Never ceases to do good.

As the water can ever engulf more clouds,
and the ocean never overflows with water,
So a wise man is never satiated
With his ever-increasing goodness.

Although the throne gives power,
It is, after all, impermanent.
All such things are impure;
The wise should abandon them.

Eventually, King Prasenajit is convinced to visit the Buddha, whose teachings make him repent. The king divides his wealth into three parts. He gives one third to the Buddha and his monastic community, another third to Sravasti’s needy citizens, and reserves a final third for state use. Prasenajit then gives Surata two priceless garments that Surata blesses and has him distribute to 500 of the city’s needy citizens. Because of Surata’s blessing, the garments heal the physically and mentally ill among them. When they ask how they can ever repay the bodhisattva, a voice from the sky encourages them generate bodhicitta in return.

• • •

Of course, many rich people are deeply compassionate , using their wealth to help others, but Surata shows us how the sole pursuit wealth and power can be just as detrimental to our emotional and spiritual lives as destitution. The fact that one in seven Americans live below the poverty line, or that the top twenty percent of Americans own almost eighty-four percent of America’s wealth, doesn’t just harm people like Ted Brassfield and Velma Hart; it also does immense harm to people like Anthony Scaramucci and Ken Langone.

The Buddha left behind both wealth and power to seek an answer to the question of suffering, not just for himself, but for all beings. As his followers, we, like Surata, we must bear witness to the emptiness of a life spent pursuing power, wealth, and privilege alone. We must speak out on behalf of the poor and suffering, and we must not hesitate to speak firmly to those with a treasury of billions who are not even aware of their own outrageous wickedness.

Note: This post is syndicated at the Zen Peacemakers Order’s Bearing Witness Blog.

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