Sustainable Development Goals and Buddhism – Buddhistdoor Global

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

Many of these “Third World” factories contracting out to big brands – in Bangladesh, China, Haiti, Thailand and elsewhere – are little more than prisons that rely on child labor, with no protocols for health and safety and without unregulated working hours. While countries like Bangladesh have an official minimum wage of US$96 per month, this is only half of the estimated food, rent and medicine needs. And very few garment workers receive even that minimum wage.

In the industrialized economies of Japan, Europe and the United States, we see the scars of poverty on our streets. In my otherwise cozy Berkeley neighborhood, people are building tent colonies along street corners, on patches of greenery, and in parks. There are no toilets, showers or basic amenities available for the growing number of homeless people. It is only one aspect 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 overindulgence. A simple, sustainable and conscious life should be a choice rather than an imposed deprivation. One of the earliest Buddhist texts, the Sabbasava Sutta, talks about the Four Requirements for a life of practice and balance: clothing, food, shelter and medicine. Today, more than 700 million people on our planet live in extreme poverty, without even having access to these four conditions, not to mention the variety and abundance of spiritual teachers and communities available to many. between us.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a target date of 2030, were unanimously adopted by 193 countries at a United Nations conference in 2015, the result of more than two decades of work at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Their fundamental principle: “Leave no one behind”. In Japan and around the world, the Soto Zen school integrates the SDGs into the teaching and practice of its many centers and temples.

The first SDG is “No poverty”. Two thousand five hundred years ago Shakyamuni Buddha described a world without poverty in the Anana Sutta (A 4.62), describing the four types of happiness of a householder:

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

A single definition of poverty does not fit all countries and all regions. For the United States, the government poverty guideline for 2021 is US$12,880 per year for an individual and US$26,500 for a family of four. “Deep poverty” in the United States is roughly half the poverty line, or $6,400 for an individual and $13,250 for a family of four. Globally, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a much lower projection: less than $2 a day. Whether in Africa, Asia or the United States, deep poverty in any respect 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 not giving goods to the needy, poverty has become rampant, from the growth of poverty, the taking of what has not been given has increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons has increased, from increased use of weapons, increased life taken. . . (iii 65 ff)

The good news is that in the first two decades of the 21st century, the global poverty rate dropped dramatically, from 35% to 9%. But in 2020, poverty has increased around the world as the pandemic, climate change and regional conflicts have affected several million people. In 2021, these conditions will push an additional 150 million people into extreme poverty.

Modern poverty is a system driven by greed, hatred and delusion. The essential illusion is that our lives are separate from each other. Contemporary Buddhist practitioners have come to understand that our lives are intertwined in systems and structures. Of course, these social structures are made up of individual people, but they are also transpersonal, involving complex interactions of groups, communities, governments, corporations, etc. But each being and all beings are expressions of unity. As the 13th century Zen master Dogen wrote, “The whole Earth is my true human body.” And as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In a real sense, all life is interdependent. . . . [We] are caught in an inescapable web of reciprocity, bound in a single garment of fate. Whatever affects someone directly, affects everyone indirectly.

“No poverty” is one of those incredibly grand vows, like the bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings or to dispel all myriad illusions. As in the Bodhisattva vows or the Mahayana precepts, the SDGs as vows point in the direction of unity, providing a place to which we can return. But the work to eradicate poverty recognizes that the Sustainable Development Goals are like intertwined vines: wishes and efforts intertwined with each other. We will not achieve a world without poverty until we embrace the goals of universal health care (3), quality education (4), gender equality and other forms of equality (5), meaningful work (9), environmental justice (13) and peace (16).

The SDGs demand our personal and individual responsibility towards all our brothers and sisters, without diverting us from their needs. Buddhists refer to the ancient practice of Dana Paramita (Skt. the perfection of generosity or bestowal). In The four bodhisattva embracing dharmas Zen Master Dogen writes poetically:

Earning a living and running a business start out as nothing more than giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, and entrusting birds to the season can also be the meritorious act of giving.

But I don’t think Dogen can imagine huge open pit mining machines knocking down entire hills, removing every flower and every tree. I don’t think he imagined any human activity that could alter the climate and change the seasons themselves. Man-made systems of poverty and oppression require systemic remedies: intervention at all levels 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 give and take – indicates quite different economic principles from the profit motive of the exploitative capitalist system. When Dogen Zenji talks about “earning a living and running a business”, he is well aware of the Buddha’s teaching on “dependent origination”. In simple language, it says:

When it exists, it happens. With the arising of this, it happens. When it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t happen. With the cessation of this, that ceases. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.61)

Where there is extreme and concentrated wealth, there is widespread poverty. Where wealth is moderate, poverty is also moderate, and we can move towards social equality. I believe this is the kind of “business” Dogen had in mind. We need poverty eradication strategies. Such strategies exist and constantly emerge. But, in the long term, they depend on the structural and personal moderation of our acquisition impulses and our greed. We need to envision an economic system that recognizes that we are together in this world. Then, by trial and error, we must put it into practice. By living like this, we can acquire the greatest wealth of all: to find contentment and security in a world where peoples and nations yearn for justice and seek equality of resources and opportunity.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
July 2021

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Berkeley Zen Center
Clear Project View
International Network of Committed Buddhists

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