The New Brahmins and the Buddhist Precariat

tumblr_lo50e28rp31qe6lax.jpgWhen I first walked into a Buddhist shrine room and sat on one of those squishy cushions, I looked around the room and saw lots of people that I thought were like me: mostly white and older than 35. Sitting on the floor together in a shrine room has a way of equalizing the appearance of people—we all looked equally ridiculous.

It took me a few years to realize that many of the people in Buddhist sanghas were not like me at all. They were mainly upper class professionals, the salariat and rentier class, as Guy Standing describes them (2011). Unlike me, they could afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on expensive retreats in exclusive audiences with high-ranking teachers in exotic locations, and also had the leisure time to spend on these pursuits.

The  Buddhist Rentier class are the New Brahmins (whom I have written about before on Engage). They are the salaried upper class who have acquired proprietary knowledge of Buddhism and own the right to confer that knowledge on those who can afford to pay for it, both in money and time needed to acquire it, leisure time. That rentier class may be Tibetan lamas, or American Roshis, or Thai Forest monks, or senior western teachers who control western sanghas. “Rents” are collected in the form of fees paid for Buddhist teachings and empowerments that have become the “intellectual property” of Buddhism in the system of late-capitalism (See Guy Standing, 2011).

The Precariat is a term coined by Guy Standing in his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury Academic 2011), his in-depth research on the economic conditions of the new working class. Standing coined the term from the precarious proletariat, that segment of the working class whose work is temporary, intermittent, based on short-term contracts, plagued by frequent unemployment. The Precariat do not have long term stable employment, union contracts, health insurance, benefits or pensions. The Precariat, burdened with education loans and debt, just barely makes it from job to job, paycheck to paycheck.

The Buddhist Precariat are those who are denied access to proprietary dharma knowledge unless they pay rents to the New Brahmins. But they now have access to that knowledge through the Internet and cheap paperback books. Video teachings, podcasts, free downloadable books and articles are all immediately available and free. The Buddhist Precariat has access to all this for the price of a library card.

What the Precariat doesn’t have is the confirmation of authority as ‘teacher’, the social standing within traditional sanghas that comes from having paid one’s dues to the New Brahmins, the Rentier Buddhists. What the Buddhist Precariat has to come to terms with is that they have to confer this authority on themselves by their own hard work, study and practice, by becoming “independent in the dhamma.”

What stands in the way of the Buddhist Precariat coming into power within western Buddhism is the suppression of engaged Buddhism. The New Brahmins have promulgated a form of Buddhism that erases many aspects of Buddhism that could be revolutionary. Instead they have directed the practice of Buddhism towards their own class interests: silent meditation in the monastic tradition. It is that very silence and inaction that safegurads their class position and assures that their wealth, power and social standing will never be challenged. Historically, Buddhism has been dominated by a feudal elite of monarchies and monks. When Buddhism came to the West in the Victorian era, the control of Buddhism was transmitted from Asian elites to the new elites of western colonialism, european imperialists.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar came along and changed all that. Ambedkar devised a Buddhism for the working and oppressed classes, the Navayana. By the example of his life, Ambedkar elevated social engagement to a practice that is equal to that of the silent meditation of monastic practice. In Ambedkar’s Navayana, engaged Buddhism is the practice of the laity, not the monks. engaged Buddhism is the practice of the working and oppressed classes, pursuing their own class interests, generating social benefit for all who suffer, cutting to the root of social suffering. Ambedkar’s motto was “educate, agitate, organize!” That doesn’t sound much like “sit quietly and focus on your breathing.”

At the same time, Ambedkar offered a spiritual politics grounded in non-violence, ethics and compassion. Meditation and group retreats serve to develop skillful action based in love and compassion, not hate and vengeance. Traditional Buddhist practices build emotional and spiritual resilience and group solidarity. But the emphasis of Ambedkar’s Navayana is engaged Buddhism.

Triratna Buddhist Community has a tradition of supporting the Ambedkar movement in India. Members of Triratna have often made the claim that Indian followers of Ambedkar only follow his work on social justice and political action, but they miss the “deeper teachings” of the dharma offered by Triratna’s founder, Sangharakshita. I disagree—I think that Triratna misses the deeper teachings of Ambedkar and the way that social justice is a very advanced spiritual practice of the Bodhisattva.

Western Buddhist are, in the main, comfortably middle and upper class, the salariat and rentier classes that  Gay Standing describes (2011). Buddhism is proliferating in Silicon Valley and other high tech production zones. Professionals in the STEM fields, amongst the highest paid in the post-industrial society, are quite receptive to Buddhism and other eastern religions.

There is no working class Buddhism per se in the West. There is, I would argue, a Buddhism of the Precariat class, which is the deformation of the middle class under late Capitalism. These are workers who have fallen out of the middle class, or who in decades past would have become middle class, but the automation and globalization of the economy has destroyed their chance at social mobility. A recent study of industrial workers of the third world show that their working conditions bear little resemblance to the Fordist factory wokers of the 1950s, and are instead an industrial flank of the global Precariat.

Most Buddhist fail to recognize that social class has a huge influence on who becomes Buddhist and how they practice. Even among the Dalits of India, many do not become Buddhist until they become educated and literate, and thereby have some chance of obtaining a job, particularly the jobs in government reserved for the “registered classes.” I began to question if there could ever be a revolutionary form of Buddhism.

As part of my habitual search for answers to the conundrum of my own life, I came across Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. When I read his articles and listened to his talks on the precariat class, I became awake, fully awake to my own class position as a member of the Precariat. I already knew intuitively from my own life that I suffered from continuous precarity. But Guy Standing’s work, solidly based in the empiricism of labour economics, reflected back to me what was not only my own personal situation, but my social situation, my class position within the mechanisms of late Capitalism.

Through Guy Standing’s work, I came to understand the conditions of my own going for refuge, as a queer immigrant in Canada, seeking refuge from transphobic abuse and  discrimination, exclusion from the regular job market. I came to Buddhism conditions of constant precarity as a queer, as an immigrant, and as an underemployed academic worker who lived on student loans and contract teaching jobs, a career riddled by intermittent unemployment.

As I awakened to my social position within the Precariat, I also began to understand how the dharma was intimately and entirely relevant to my life in the Precariat: non-self, impermanence, interdependence. I was able to see my dedication to engaged Buddhism as an expression of my own class interests as a member of the Buddhist Precariat. I finally understood engaged Buddhism from within my own experience of suffering as a member of the Precariat, rather than as some other-worldly ideal of the Bodhisattva. And I began to put together Ambedkar’s vision of engaged Buddhism with the conditions of those people who could potentially become Buddhist, a revolutionary Buddhist Precariat.

We need to bring Ambedkar’s engaged Buddhism to the Precariat. First they are natural candidates for understanding the suffering of impermanence. Since there is no prospect of a career future, they focus on the present. As Guy Standing says, the precariat class has no occupational identity because job descriptions shift with every new contract and assignment. Their very existence is marked by non-self, impermanence and interdependence. However, they are also amongst the most educated of the proletarian classes, with an interest in plunging the depths of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The Precariat are the leading advocates for the commons and the sharing economy, because they depend on the public provision of basic services, such as public libraries, public parks, public transportation and internet connectivity.

Second, the Precariat are also the natural revolutionaries of all the proletarian classes, as Guy Standing argues, being simultaneously both the most educated and socially insecure. My observation is that the Buddhist Precariat are in the vanguard of engaged Buddhism, the most vocal organizers and activists (yours truly being the primary example.)

The Precariat class, even the Buddhist Precariat, is indeed the Dangerous Class. We are the least conformed to the status quo, with the least to lose in a full-blown revolution, and perhaps, the most to gain. The New Brahmins define suffering in strictly personal terms—individual, psychic suffering. The Buddhist Precariat also experiences personal suffering, but we are more acutely aware of collective suffering: social, political and economic. The suppression of socially-engaged Buddhism and the prevalence of silent meditation retreats as the dominant form of western practice reflects those deeply embedded class interests.

It’s time to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have any more in common with the Buddhist Brahmins than I do with upper class Christians or Jews, wealthy yogis, or the upper crust of any organized religion. Many of the New Brahmins have incomes and lifestyles that fully qualify them as the 1%. This explains why no matter how “nice” they may be, I have never felt like I belonged in mainstream sanghas dominated by the Buddhist Rentier class. It’s not a place that I can take refuge in. I have so much more in common with fellow queers and trans folk, people of colour, artists, dharma punx, digital task jockeys, organizers and activists, and the rest of the Precariat class, most of whom are not Buddhist, we who are the 99%.

We are the climate precariat, who are affected first, worst and longest by climate disruption; the marginalized precariat, whose human rights are under constant assault; the global precariat, made redundant by the globalization of the economy;  the digital precariat, displaced by the temporalization and automation of work; and the spiritual precariat, those who are too queer, too marginalized and too disruptive to be welcome in most mainstream Buddhist organizations, even so-called “progressive” sanghas.

It’s time for the Buddhist Precaraiat to wake up to it’s own class situation and become a class-for-itself, for it’s own personal and social liberation, the revolutionary Buddhist class. Through it’s own liberation, social, political, economic, and spiritual, the Buddhist Precariat advances the liberation of the global precariat.

Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, available for free download as a PDF: https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/the-precariat-the-new-dangerous-class/ch1-the-precariat

and here: https://www.hse.ru/data/2013/01/28/1304836059/Standing.%20The_Precariat__The_New_Dangerous_Class__-Bloomsbury_USA(2011).pdf

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4 thoughts on “The New Brahmins and the Buddhist Precariat

  1. Hi Shaun. This is a really valuable and long-overdue analysis (or probably I’m just late getting to it). Among other things, it shows how the world of Western Buddhism operates in collusion with the larger world in which it is embedded and of which it is but an effect. That it does so is unseemly for numerous reason. The reason that your post highlights might be the worst of all: at the precise moment when it empties its bag of weapons to be used against the existing world (emptiness, no-self, impermanence, etc.) onto the table, x-buddhism calls in the police to shackle the blackguard buyers. Why should we expect a different outcome? Contemporary Buddhist teachers obviously believe that they are living exemplars of the required immanent rebellion; yet, as an analysis like yours shows, they not only reflect the world back to itself, but redouble its self-esteem with their ostentatious display of dharmic goodness. Such goodness, in the West at least, includes the pretense of classlessness, gender equality, and all-around egalitarianism. Or is it a delusion and not a pretense? One of the greatest ironies of x-buddhism is that it identifies as a rigorous instrument of insight and wisdom yet, like our narcissistic and self-assured current so-called president, lacks even the most minimal evidence of critical self-awareness.

    Twenty years ago or so, I spent some time with Ambedkar Buddhist in India and in, of all places, Rhode Island. I remember thinking that this must have been what it was like during the ’60s, plotting the next confrontation with The Man. In India, of course, it was very real, and they did have social and political impact. In Providence, it all rang somewhat hollow. As you indicate, most of the members were Indians who were, in the U.S. at least, Rentiers rather than Precariats. Still, it occurred to me that their custom of gathering in small groups in a member’s home to practice (a little) and discuss ideas (a lot) was, in however small a measure, potentially disruptive of the local status quo. Environments like that are certainly potent furnaces of subject formation. So much depends, of course, on what’s happening in them. Buddhist sanghas, after all, typically gather in that fashion. And yet, as you so clearly show, the result is a reproduction of the capitalist catastrophe.

    I wonder if terms like Precariat, Rentier, and New Brahmin can name an ideological stance rather than, or maybe as well, a literal subject position within the prevailing World? Engels was a Rentier if ever there was one.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll continue to concretize for us the revolutionary practice that you envision. Thanks.

    1. Oh of course and pink elephants fly! Look, if you don’t accept that ‘social facts’ are real, that is, they are rules of engagement that are operative in our collective lives, then don’t bother to read this blog, because it’s all about the reality of social facts and how they affect people. As well, don’t bother with pursuing social justice as that also involves dealing with the reality of social facts and their beneficial and harmful effects on people. It’s just like saying there is no such thing as racism or sexism, but yet those ‘social facts’ cause significant suffering in people’s lives.

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