A Buddhist and Interfaith Response to Debt Capitalism
From the perspective of Buddha Dhamma, money that originates as interest-bearing, centralized, privatized debt is harmful, unethical, and delusional. Modern fiat money and the credit system are based on wrong views (tainted mental fabrications) and are taking humanity away from our true nature and purpose in life.
Why? Because in Buddhism the goal of human life is to be awake, free, and happy by ending dukkha (suffering) through the proper education of human mind, body, and speech for ultimate freedom, unsurpassable happiness, and the peace of Nibbana (enlightenment). Dukkha arises out of certain habitual state of human consciousness and volitional actions (Saṅkhāra) conditioned by greed, hatred, and ignorance. The social dukkha of capitalism, slavery, racism, sexism, militarism, neo-colonialism, commercial imperialism, the prison-industrial complex, and mindless cycle of profit, production, consumption, and destruction of habitat have all arisen in large part due to the dysfunctional dynamics and institutionalized structures created by debt-based currency. The high indebtedness of households, universities, corporations, and governments has become a hallmark of global capitalism in the twenty-first century.
The current debt crisis has deep roots in collective human consciousness. It arises out of longstanding false dichotomies between human and nature, self and society, ecology and economy, mind and matter, religious and secular, public and private, government and corporation. According to Buddha, the fundamental dichotomy is not between good and evil, but between ignorance (delusion) and wisdom (enlightenment). And delusion is at the heart of our debt-based monetary system. At a fundamental level this delusion arises from misunderstanding the true nature of mind, reality, and self. It arises when we misperceive transient as permanent, fail to recognize pain (or seek happiness in dukkha), and solidify the self (ego) and its self-clinging views rather than seeking universal truth (dhamma) and liberation of mind. The core teachings of Buddha are on the interdependence of all beings and the emptiness of “separate self”—the possibility for humans to awaken and realize the complete freedom of our unconditioned minds. As we touch our tender awake-heart (bodhicitta) we can begin to do the work of healing and repairing the world with fearless love for the well-being of all.
Much of modern fiat money (except cash) is created as electronic debt-money by centralized private commercial banking, when a new loan (credit) is issued under fractional-reserve banking. Many see money and banking as fair and legitimate institutions of the capitalist free-enterprise system, but in truth these institutions function in an anti-democratic way. Debt-based fiat currency is a legacy of colonial industrial times, and all central banks in the post-colonial era blindly followed the unjust and deceptive fractional reserve banking model set by Bank of England around 1700 AD.
The Buddhist path is based on an affirmation of non-harming life ethics, mindful living, and the practice of generosity. Buddha saw all human suffering, confusion, and harmful action originating from three unwholesome mind states: greed, hatred, and delusion. Since mind is the forerunner of all motivation, experience, and action, the path to human happiness and freedom lies in the whole-hearted practice of mindfulness. Without practice wisdom decays. The core of all faith traditions is based on living wisdom. In the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha said, “One holds wealth not for oneself but for all beings.”
John Adams, an American founding father rightly commented:
All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise, not from defects in their Constitution or Confederation, not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from the downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit and circulation.
Both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln thought that the power to create and issue money must rest with the people and their elected government and not with any private banks.
The Origins of Debt
In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber says, for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, since long before the invention of coins or cash. Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness (Jubilee) have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, and have sparked innumerable insurrections. He argues that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it. However, large parts of society in native cultures thrived under simpler gift economies, barter systems, and diverse systems of community currencies.
Aristotle saw money as an abstraction, writing, “Money does not exist by nature, but by an Act of law.” All debt-based credit money is private bank money. In reality money is an invisible, agreed upon social contract and a token of public trust. As such, the issuance of money at the base should only be public. Unlike private money, which can only be lent as debt, public money can be both spent and lent to circulate interest-free to meet the real needs of people and the environment. Debt money continually undermines Democratic systems of government, concentrates wealth in a few hands, destabilizes society, and commodifies people and planet. Thus, banks can make loans available for toxic chemical producers, weapons manufacturers, oil companies, intoxicants, and a myriad of products harmful to humans and natural environment.
What We Can Do
The interfaith community must come together to study the cancer-like effect of debt money on our society and the planet. Usury (the practice of making interest and profit from loaning money without spending any labor and resources) has been condemned by many sages, including Plato, Aristotle, Cato, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Aquinas, Muhammad, Moses, Philo, and Buddha. All four gospels of the New Testament tell of Jesus using physical force in a rare display of anger and chasing the money changers out of the Temple. What would it mean to follow Jesus’s lead and take a similar attitude toward the powerful role that contemporary banking and financial institutions hold within our cities?
In order to change our experiential reality, we need to continually train our minds to see the whole and move beyond polarized habits of thinking and divisive dichotomies in political economic discourse. In Buddhism the greatest cause of suffering (dukkha) arises out of our erroneous notion of a separate independent “self.” Every citizen is simultaneously a public citizen and a private individual, and as such we have both individual and social responsibilities. We do not see the deeply interdependent nature of all phenomena and beings, so we fabricate oppressive structures of self-survival (“us versus them”), develop fear-based systems that support endless war, and embrace conceptual frameworks that reward institutions of accumulation and exclusion.
Usury has been universally condemned in all religions, because it is unjust to extract more than what is given (principal). Many ancient societies decided that usury’s harmful effect on society and environment required periodic cancellation of all debts. Yet modern money and privatized centralized banking, which are based on a fractional reserve system, thrive on issuing credit as interest bearing debt and charging compound interest on loans (credits). Making money off of money (created out of nothing) without spending labor or resources is the worst form of robbery that plays on people’s ignorance. Debt creates debt-bondage and debt-slavery, so it is antithetical to the development of community, freedom, and democracy. It is a tool of empire and patriarchy. The latter implies social organization and institutions of male rule, authority, and privilege, and entails subordination of women through the denial of property inheritance and lineage.
Debt and Power
Historically the elite, literate, urbanized, and privileged people have built their wealth by taking advantage of the labor and resources of illiterate and rural people by using the instrument of debt. The earliest forms of slavery were likely debt-slavery and the enslavement of prisoners of war in Ancient Egypt. Debt slaves or prisoners of war were at times set free after serving for a certain period. Like other governors of the city-state of Mesopotamia, around 1762 BCE Hammurabi proclaimed the official cancellation of citizens’ debts owed to the government, high-ranking officials, and dignitaries.
Throughout history, the tiny minority who have understood the inner workings of debt and finance have created structures to accumulate wealth at the expense of vast majority. These days, financial illiteracy continues to be correlated with high levels of debt and high fees for financial services and is greater among people with low incomes and low education, as well as minorities and the elderly.
The Buddhist Scholar Trevor Ling believed that the Buddha inspired a broad transformative movement for changing society based on his enlightened perspective on how society should function. The Buddha altered the dogmatic brahminical notion of karma (action) and exalted intention above action. He rejected the caste system based on heredity and laid out a noble path of wisdom, generosity, ethics, and mindfulness for the benefit of all beings. In Buddha’s teaching, the greatest enemy is our own unconsciousness of our mind’s true potential to wake up to reality. Buddhist monastic code (vinaya) forbade monks and nuns to accept money from others, engage in the market economy, or keep personal accounts.
Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood that bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings (whether by engaging in the slave trade or prostitution business, or by raising animals for slaughter), engaging in butchery, producing poisons, and producing intoxicants. He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury. Charging exorbitant interest on loans in Buddha’s time and now is a dishonest means of gaining wealth. In Buddhism, our freedom is seen as inseparable and interdependent with the freedom of people everywhere. We all need to work together to earn our mutual emancipation, peace, and justice.
In order to alleviate mass suffering, there is a spiritual urgency for the interfaith community in the United States to bring attention and public awareness to this global issue of debt crisis and jubilee. The Dalai Lama recently said:
To meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for his or her own self, family or nation, but also for the benefit of all mankind. Universal responsibility is the real key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace, the equitable use of natural resources and, through concern for future generations, the proper care of the environment.
Buddha said, “Dhamma will be your absolute leader.” Jesus said, “Who is leader, let him serve.” As the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, we must shoulder the great responsibility to wake people up about the delusional nature of debt-based money and develop a roadmap for transforming our money system to a democratized, debt-free, public-trust model. Together, in the context of engaged interfaith communities of learning, we can design crowd-sourced, transparent models of sustainable currency and develop new paradigms of economic democracy that allow for the direct participation of citizens, consumers, and entrepreneurs at all levels.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Winter 2015 print issue: Jubilee and Debt Abolition. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/jubilee to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue. To read more articles on this topic by Susmita Barua, visit her website.)