The karma of institutions, corporations and organisations

Did you ever think that organisations, corporations and institutions have a life of their own?

David Loy was in Amsterdam yesterday to talk to a university students and (mostly Zen) Buddhists about his book: Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.

In Buddhism the main cause of human problems are the three poisons. They are: Greed (or attachment), Ill Will (anger, aversion) and Ignorance. On a personal level meditation is seen as the solution. However, what about social injustice? Can meditation fix that?

What Loy proposed was this: social institutions (organisations, corporations) have their own motivations and people are trapped in them. For instance – what if the CEO of Shell had an epiphany: ‘we’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and ruining our planet. We have to change Shell to make sure we don’t contribute to this problem’. It is not hard to think that this leads to a problem – or rather, his speedy replacement.

Because the three poisons are institutionalized in corporations, institutions and organisations. Individuals can’t change the direction of those institutions any more than they can walk to the moon. Greed is easy to see: our whole economy is built on the premise that growth is necessary and good. Never mind that this is physically impossible. Armies and politics institutionalize Ill Will. When newspapers don’t report truthfully, they institutionalize Ignorance. When schools have to teach Biblical myth as scientific truth, they institutionalize ignorance.

David Loy calls for a revolution: let’s not use our meditative practice merely to tackle our own three poisons, but let us try to also tackle the three poisons as manifest in social structures. Let us not merely help people in need – however necessary – but also tackle the reasons they got in trouble in the first place. Because one of the things we have learned in the West is that institutions can be changed. That is the basis of our democracy. They are subject to change, they can be managed – however, it does take collective effort.

If the Buddha was alive today, would he teach only meditation? Or would he, as David Loy suggests, also try to tackle the social structures that cause so many of our problems?

I think he has a point. Social structures can be changed. The question that he did not answer was in the room after his talk finished: HOW? I think it starts with making sure that – to the extent that it is possible – we use our own wisdom to support those institutions that we can really get behind and create new ones that do reflect our current insights. Sometimes we may even be able to change existing organisations, but I think that is rare.