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Poverty Alleviation: A Buddhist Perspective Hershock, Peter D. 2004-12

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 Poverty Alleviation: A Buddhist Perspective
Peter D. Hershock'
Poverty cries out for attention, so powerfully and so
insistently, that to ignore it would seem unthinkable. And
indeed, poverty alleviation figures prominently on virtually
every governmental, non-governmental, and intergovernmental agenda. But in spite of this, poverty persists,
and, depending on which measures are used, can be
documented as both spreading and deepening.
The generic answer to the problem of poverty has been
development. Although its broadest connotation is simply
that of expanding or realizing potential, development has over
the past half century come to mean primarily the expansion
of economic potential and secondarily the realization of social,
cultural, and political potentials. But after five decades of
steady, and at times extremely rapid, growth of economic
activity and development initiatives, poverty has not been
eliminated and the degree to which it has been alleviated in
global terms is very much open to contest.
For example, the United Nations Development Program
(UNDP) estimated in its 2000 Global Development Report that
2.8 billion people now live on less than $2 per day—a level of
income that is marginally adequate for meeting basic
subsistence levels of nutrition, clothing, shelter, medical care,
and education. Roughly 1.2 billion live at less than $1 per
day—an income level that is generally used to benchmark
"absolute poverty." These figures are distressing: roughly 45%
of the global population is barely able to meet its basic
subsistence needs; roughly 20% live in such abject conditions
that they have no possibility of living minimally dignified lives.
But the global situation may, in actuality, be much more dire.
Statistics like those just cited can misleadrngly suggest that
*   Coordinator,   Summer   and   Outreach   Programs,   Asian   Studies
Development Program, East-West Center, Hawaii
 poverty has been effectively eliminated in developed countries
and that great progress has been made in rapidly developing
countries like China where the percentage of the population
living on less than $1 per day has dropped from roughly 45%
to less than 16% over the past thirty years. According to US
Census Bureau estimates, however, roughly 20% of all
American children and 13% of the general population live in
poverty. And perhaps more tellingly, 35% of the population
will drop below the poverty line for some period of time in the
course of any given year—an indication of the precarious
nature of basic economic security in what is broadly regarded
as the most wealthy country in the world.
The light shed by such statistics on the correlation between
economic development and poverty alleviation has been
interpreted in a variety of ways. But what they make
undeniably manifest is the fact that economic development
does not, in and of itself, lead to the alleviation of poverty. On
the contrary, even where economic growth and development
has been most successfully valorized—as in the U.S.—poverty
can actually deepen. What is less clear is what would happen
if poverty alleviation, not economic growth and development,
were made primary. That is, would poverty alleviation,
skillfully enough understood and practiced, be capable of
promoting sustained economic growth and development? It is
my own conviction that it would, but in ways that would
fundamentally reshape and redirect global patterns of social,
economic, and political interdependence.
I want to suggest that poverty alleviation is crucial to any
truly sustainable development process and, in fact, is an
eminently effective and efficient driver of any such process. In
contrast, any development process that does not actually
alleviate poverty will tend to accommodate and eventually
institutionalize it, effectively making more and more room for
the poor as the benefits of economic expansion flow decisively
elsewhere. In making a case for such an understanding of the
relationship between poverty alleviation and development, I
will draw on resources from Buddhist thought and practice,
 particularly in identifying the meaning and conditioned
origination of poverty.
Buddhism and Poverty
It is a basic teaching of Buddhism that, for the purpose of
ending or resolving suffering, all things should be seen as
having no-self or essential nature. Put somewhat differently,
no thing should be seen as literally existing or "standing
apart" from all other things in self-sustained independence.
On the contrary, all things should be seen as arising
interdependently (pratitya-samutpada) and as ultimately
empty (sunya) of any permanently abiding essence.
Poverty, then, does not truly exist. It is not an independent
existent and is neither self-originating nor self-sustaining.
Rather, poverty obtains because of a particular confluence of
conditions, a particular pattern of relationships that emerges
and is sustained over time. Given their most robust readings,
the teachings of interdependence and emptiness direct us
toward seeing that this pattern of relationships is not
ultimately divorced from the patterns of relationship through
which each of us has come to be both who and as we are.
There is ultimately no dividing line, no ontological break,
between the pattern of relationships that are constitutive of
poverty and those that are constitutive of each and every one
of us. In short, we cannot divorce ourselves completely from
the conditions that give rise to poverty. In some degree, we
are intimate with the poor and their suffering. If we believe
otherwise, that can only be a function of our own ignorance of
the horizonless interdependence that obtains among all
things. This ignorance is itself a primary condition for
In the Ina Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya VI.45), the Buddha stated
that, "poverty is suffering." Indeed, poverty is suffering of a
particularly egregious sort. The first part of the sutta details
the consequences that ensue from material poverty: debt,
interest payments, being hounded when falling arrears, and
bondage. Falling into poverty means losing the ability to meet
 one's own needs. If this condition persists, one is subject to a
pattern of dependence on others that is associated with
shouldering burdens in excess of meeting one's own needs
and, finally, with punishing isolation from others.
Unalleviated, poverty results in being deprived of even the
most basic freedoms.
In the second part of the sutta, the Buddha poses an analogy
that makes it clear that poverty is not solely or even most
crucially about material deprivation. "In the same way,
monks, whoever has no conviction with regard to skillful
mental qualities, no sense of conscience with regard to skillful
mental qualities, no sense of concern...persistence...[or]
discernment with regard to skillful mental qualities is...said
to be poor, destitute, and without means." (Anguttara Nikaya,
VI.47) There are at least two important implications of this
passage. First, it draws an analogy between the debts,
interest payments, hounding, and bondage that result from
material poverty and the full range of compounding and
ultimately freedom-curtailing experiential outcomes
associated with unskillful qualities of attention. Most simply
put, ignorance begets suffering. But in addition, the passage
also suggests that in the broadest, and finally, most
important terms, all poverty can be traced to unskillful
(akusala) patterns of awareness. In short, poverty is
ultimately rooted in deficient and/ or misdirected patterns of
attention, both resulting from and resulting in ignorance and
unskilled qualities of relationship.
The Ina Sutta thus depicts material deprivation as less a
cause of conflicted patterns of interdependence than as a
particular result of them. The terms for poverty and the poor
most commonly used in the Pali canon—daliddata and
dalidda—are very telling in this regard. Conceptually, these
terms center on vagrancy and begging. They point to such
severe breakdowns of normal patterns of social and economic
interdependence that one no longer has either a place to call
one's own or any means of meeting the most basic
requirements for food, shelter, and clothing. At the same time,
 the early canon endorses in the most positive terms possible
the benefits of the homeless life of the monk or nun in which
one's basic subsistence needs are met through ritualized
seeking of alms. It is not the mere fact of material lack that
determines if a person is poor or living in poverty, but rather
how he or she experiences this lack—as being left wanting or
with contentment. The facts of a situation are less crucial
than its meaning.
This reading of poverty is given broad support in the positive
virtues that are associated with the "homelessness" of
monastic life. The early canon is replete with passages
extolling the simple life of absolutely minimal material
possessions and few wants—a life that is explicitly ordained
for members of the Sangha and which is appicchata or
"content with little." In keeping with this implicit valorization
of 'poverty', texts like the Rattaphala Sutta renounce material
wealth and the complicated patterns of desire associated with
it, while holding in highest esteem "noble wealth" (ariya
dhana) that is centered on building up faith (saddhd), moral
clarity (sila), and wisdom (panna) and is conducive to
sustained Buddhist practice and the realization of freedom
from suffering.
The rhetorical strategy of critically inverting the meaning and
valorization of poverty and wealth to foster appropriate
practice reflects the Buddha's commitment to making the
fullest possible use of situational resources in his teaching.
For instance, when teaching members of the brahmin caste,
the Buddha similarly reframed the meanings of "brahmin"
and "sacrifice" in order to turn this audience away from
troubling patterns of relationship and identity. Using as
points of departure familiar elements of their own lives—
elements that presently commit them to cycling in samsara—
the Buddha would skillfully guide his brahmin audience
toward moving in the direction of nirvana. Beginning with
what is intimately apparent—the situation of a particular
audience, as it has come to be (yathabhutam)—the Buddha
discloses how this place, this situation, can be understood as
 already part of the noble Path itself. In these cases, as in
similar teachings on matters ranging from the personal to the
political, the Buddha's aim is to enjoin others to vigilantly
reorient existing relational patterns, effectively revising their
dramatic disposition or meaning to incorporate them into
Buddhist practice. Such teachings are, in other words, object
lessons in how to work with karma—that is, with outcomes
and opportunities conditioned by abiding patterns of value-
intention-action—to achieve enlightening ends.
It would be inappropriate, then, to make too much out of the
different valence given to poverty and wealth in different
canonical contexts or to insist upon reconciling them entirely.
The teachings recorded in (especially) the early canon do not
provide strict definitions, but rather injunctions and
directions for practice. Their primary function is to encourage
and direct the systematic conversion of the meaning of our
situation from samsara to nirvana, from want to contentment,
from bondage to liberation. This said, however, the canon
does offer sufficient resources to construct an understanding
of poverty and its alleviation that is clear, sustainable, and
karmically astute. Two texts from the early canon are of
particular help in this regard: the Sakkapanha Sutta and the
Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta.
The Sakkapanha Sutta gets to the heart of the development
dilemma—the fact that good intentions often (and quite
ironically) seem to result in ill effects. The sutta centers on a
discussion between Sakka, the ruler of the gods, and the
Buddha. As a ruler of the gods, Sakka is in a particularly
good position to observe that, even when people wish to live in
peace, without hate, hostility, or malignity, they are seldom
able to do so for long. In spite of their good will and intentions,
conflicts arise, hate and hostility come into play, and trouble
and suffering continue unabated and are even exacerbated. In
response to Sakka's question about why this is so, the
Buddha lays out a sequence of conditions upon which such
unfortunate turns of events pivot. The most readily apparent
condition is the  persistence  of jealousy and greed,  which
 depends upon the persistence of fixed likes and dislikes,
which are rooted in craving desires, which are fed by dwelling
upon or thinking continuously about things. This tendency to
dwell on things is itself a function of mentally proliferating
impediments (papanca). The key to living in sustained peace,
"realizing final nirvana...blazing a trail, exhausting samsara,
passing by all suffering..." is nothing other than "cutting
through papanca." (DN 14.3.33)
Sakka naturally asks how it is that the tendency for
proliferating impediments can be undermined or ended. The
answer provided by the Buddha is both marvelously direct
and subtle. He takes as cases in point immediate experiences
of pleasure (somanassa), displeasure (domanassa), and
equanimity (upekkha). There are, he says, two basic ways in
which each of these can play out—two distinctive directions
in which pleasure, displeasure and equanimity can dispose
our immediate situation and about which we should be
vigorously mindful. One way is toward increasing
unwholesome eventualities (akusala dhamma) and decreasing
wholesome eventualities (kusala dhamma). The other is
toward decreasing eventualities that are unwholesome and
increasing those that are wholesome. It is in the latter case
that pleasure, displeasure, and equanimity can be deemed
excellent and papanca fails to arise. That is, the proliferation
of situational blockages does not occur so long as things are
headed in a wholesome direction, proceeding in a wholesome
manner, in such a way that unwholesome factors decrease.
Crucially, the Buddha does not indicate that the rise of
wholesome (kusala) factors is itself enough. Rather, the
decrease of unwholesome (akusala) factors is also necessary.
In terms of the present discussion, this cautions that while
economic growth and development might be "positive" in and
of themselves, poverty may not be eliminated by these alone.
Alleviating poverty must, at the very least, be vigoroulsy co-
implicated with development. Moreover, mindfulness with
respect to what factors or eventualities arise from any given
confluence   of conditions   or   relational   dynamics  must  be
 continuous and unwavering.
The relational and attentive quality being referenced is simply
and effectively indicated through the use of the adjectives
kusala and akusala. As used in Buddhist discourse, the
connotations of kusala and akusala significantly exceed that
suggested by their common translation as "wholesome" and
"unwholesome." Kusala refers to qualities of action and
engagement that are skillful to an exemplary degree. It does
not mean being "good enough," but rather good to a virtuosic
or expert degree—so profoundly appreciating a particular field
of endeavor and the unique complexion of a given situation
that there obtain no impediments to enhancing the situation
through what appear to be effortless contributions. In the
Sakkapanha Sutta, it is stated that to the extent that pursuit
of pleasure, displeasure and equanimity is conducive to turns
of events that are kusala and that decrease propensities that
are akusala, they should be sought after; if not, such pursuit
should be abandoned. Elsewhere in the canon, similar claims
are made with respect, for example, to bodily comportment
and reasoning. This, the Buddha informs Sakka, is the
practice by means of which papanca is ended and the way of
buddhas firmly taken.
There is significant convergence between the claim made in
the Sakkapanha Sutta that situational blockages, trouble,
and suffering derive from allowing things to turn in an
akusala fashion and the declaration in the Ina Sutta that
poverty occurs with akusala patterns of attention and
relationship. This suggests seeing poverty itself in terms of
situational blockages or the proliferation of impediments to
relating freely. Poverty is an erosion of the attentive and
situational resources needed, in any given situation, to orient it
as a whole toward the resolution of suffering. Poverty is thus
rooted in the asravas or out-flows which drain away
attention-energy into polluting or wasteful activities, the
elimination of which the early canon repeatedly identifies with
the attainment of ultimate freedom as a realized arhant.
 Such a reading of poverty is consonant with much of the
imagery of Mahayana Buddhist teachings on bodhisattvas
and buddha-realms, as well as with Mahayana emphases on
skillful means (upaya), the perfection of offering (dana), and
realizing the emptiness or mutual relevance of all things. But
it is also deeply embedded in the early canon's explicitly
critical engagement of issues surrounding governance and
right rule—a context that itself points to the meaning of
sustained consonance between practice and polity, between
Dharma and the institutions of daily life. In the Agganna
Sutta (Digha Nikaya 27), for example, there is recounted a
narrative of human and worldly origins in which it is made
quite clear that there is no essential good to be found in
currently prevailing social, political, or economic institutions.
All such structures resulted from originally akusala patterns
of value-intention-action—that is, from karma which resulted
in ways of being present that were habitually and profoundly
prone to trouble or suffering. As such, they are open to
critique to the precise extent that they institutionalize rather
than disestablish akusala dispositions—dispositions that
compound rather than finally and meaningfully resolve
suffering. Nowhere in the early canon, however, is the
dynamic interplay among karma, institutions, and policies for
governance and development more clearly illustrated than in
the core story of the Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta (Digha Nikaya
The sutta opens with the Buddha addressing a group of
monks, exhorting them to practice mindfulness with respect
to body, feelings, mind, and mental objects, in this way
insuring the building of wholesome conditions and merit. In
keeping with the teaching strategy outlined above of working
with situationally relevant resources, the sutta ends with the
Buddha detailing what is meant, for monks and nuns, by
such mundane values as "length of life," "beauty,"
"happiness," "wealth," and "power." Within this narrative
frame, the Buddha relates an historically and karmically
sweeping tale that explicitly addresses the meaning of sound
governance and that pointedly lays bare the root conditions
 and ultimate consequences of poverty.
This inner tale begins during the reign of King Dalhanemi, a
wheel-turning king ruling in accordance with Dharma and in
whose kingdom all beings live cooperatively, attractive in
appearance, long in life, and refined in customs and tastes.
The story chronicles, over eight "generations", the gradual
slide of this idyllic world into increasing trouble and suffering,
reaching a nadir when society collapses into a degenerate
free-for-all in which children curse their parents, respect is
ridiculed, family members murder one another as readily as
they do strangers, and in which addictions to crude
sensations and abusive relationships become celebrated as
norms. With each step into this moral abyss, the vitality and
beauty of the people decreases, going from a lifetime of
80,000 years in the time of King Dalhanemi to a mere seven
This fall begins with a governance and policy failure on the
part of Dalhanemi's heir seventh removed: he makes the
mistake of not fully consulting with his ministers and
advisors and acting on his own thinking alone. In particular,
he fails to properly respond to evidence of poverty in the
capital city. A well-intended series of responses ensues, each
bringing about greater and greater trouble. The more he tries
to control the behavior of the people, the further things spiral
out of control instead. For example, after he has
(inadvertently) allowed poverty to rise to the point that theft
occurs, he decides to give money to the thief so that he can
support his family without crime. But when people hear of
this, they interpret it as meaning that theft is rewarded with
money from the king! So theft rises. The king then decides to
behead a thief as a warning to all who would steal. But people
see this use of a well-honed sword and get the idea that if
they kill the people from whom they steal, no one will be able
to report their crime! From here, things go steadily from bad
to worse with each attempt to rein in the unwholesome
behavior ofthe people.
 This trend only turns around when a few people refuse to
endorse or participate in what have become the "norms,"
"institutions," and "ideals" of society. Retreating from a
society that they see as imploding—further membership in
which would only embroil them in evidently unwholesome
karma—they eventually recognize one another as of like heart
and mind, forming a community of their own based on the
shared practice of good deeds for the sake of other beings and
centered on coursing freely along the four immeasurable
relational headings (brahma-vihara) of loving-kindness,
compassion, joy in the good fortune of others, and equanimity.
Their efforts consolidate and the negative spiral of social,
political, economic and cultural degeneration is reversed.
After twelve generations or periods in which increasingly
wholesome values-intentions-actions prevail, the realm is
blessed with the arising of the fully enlightened Buddha
Metteyya (Maitreya).
There are three very interesting themes in this apparently
simple moral tale. First is the crucial role of poverty in
bringing about social collapse and the identification of poverty
with the breakdown of contribution-mediated mutual
relevance. That is, poverty and the potential for social
collapse arise when people are not in position to contribute to
the welfare of others or to be appreciated and contributed to
in turn. Second is the correlation among decreasing vitality
and lifespan, increasing ignorance about our interdependence,
and the collapse of the life of the community to which it leads.
In remarkably simple language, this points toward
meaningful interrelationships among the loss of personal and
cultural memory and history, the loss of a capacity for
concerted attention and long-term commitments, and
dramatic or moral distraction. Finally, the story makes it very
clear that the strategy of securing ourselves against trouble
and crisis through institutions of control eventually becomes
self-defeating, crossing the threshold of its own utility to
establish conditions in which further controls become
increasingly imperative. In a society that has suffered the
total social, economic, and political collapse that ensues when
 poverty is not truly and sustainably alleviated and then
eliminated, the ultimate corrective does not lie in increasing
capacities for control and autonomy, but in systematically
cultivating the conditions of appreciative and contributory
According to the framed narrative, poverty manifests when
people are not able to work in and contribute to their
community in a meaningful way. At a deeper level, however,
this also means that the community at large is incapable of
properly appreciating the resources—the distinctive
difference—of precisely these people. The poor are people who
cannot make a meaningful and valued difference. Poverty,
then, consists of contributory impasse and implies a failure to
appreciate—that is, to sympathetically understand and add
value to—our ongoing patterns of interdependence. The
breakdown of appreciative and contributory mutuality is a
relational breakdown, a function of disrupted or disoriented
As the sutta makes clear, both felt community and its
objective expression in abiding social institutions are
compromised when interdependence devolves into ignorance-
conditioned patterns of dependence and independence, and
they disintegrate with the breakdown of robust patterns of
mutual contribution. Resisting or reversing such devolution
and disintegration cannot hinge on simply meeting individual
(or even collective) needs or wants; success finally hinges on
how these are addressed—that is, on the values underlying
our strategies for redressing the erosion of relational capacity
and effective offering. Successfully alleviating poverty is a
function of realizing and sustaining patterns of
interdependence that enhance the capabilities of both
individuals and communities for relating freely in
contributing to one another's welfare. True poverty alleviation
at once results from and results in bodhisattva action.
The strategic implications of this are expressed in the
narrative  climax of the   Cakkavatti-Sihanda  Sutta.   Poverty,
 and the kinds of social malaise that are at once primary
evidence and consequences of it, is not best alleviated
through either state welfare or legal and technological
controls that address only "the poor." Such efforts eventually
only exacerbate the root conditions of poverty. They effectively
deny the relational locus of poverty, identifying poverty with
the poor rather than with a breakdown of full and liberating
mutuality. Sustainable poverty alleviation entails fostering
increased capacities for—and commitments to—giving
appropriately to others, building up the personal and
communal resources needed for relating freely, in the context
of realizing the horizonless emptiness or mutual relevance of
all members of the community or society.
Taken together, these insights drawn from the early Buddhist
canon suggest at least superficial compatibility between
Buddhist understandings of awakening and social prosperity,
and currently predominant growth-oriented, free-market
models of development. There is, for example, substantial
resonance between the Buddhist focus on alleviating poverty
by enhancing appreciative and contributory virtuosity and
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's definition of "development as
freedom" or increased relational capacity. Buddhism, however,
is unique in focusing on poverty and its alleviation in terms of
karma or value- and intention-conditioned relational
dynamics. Because of its irreducibly relational focus,
Buddhist approaches to addressing poverty are ultimately
systemic in scope. That is, they involve paradigmatic critique
of existing practices and institutions—a critique of their root
values and assumptions.
Trade, Development, and the Erosion of Productive Diversity
I would like to offer one take on the significance of this
difference by looking at the karmic implications of the
relationship among trade, development, and productive
In keeping with the teaching of karma, we might begin
assessing the poverty alleviation potential of trade—as it is
 now predominantly carried out by especially developed
nations and multinational corporations—through considering
the dramatic implications of their root motive: increasing
material wealth through expanding market share and
accelerating profit. Given relatively free reign, to what kinds of
situational dynamics—what patterns of relational tension and
release—do market-domination and profit-seeking lead?
Patterns of relationship aimed at amassing material wealth—
rather than, for instance, generating noble wealth or
alleviating poverty—are not likely to be conducive to equitably
enhanced relational or contributory capacity. On the contrary,
they will tend to create and then institutionalize sharply
inclined slopes of competitive advantage that preference
corporate interests at market expense. Simply put, evenly
distributing profits is not as profitable as establishing a
market topography that permits and promotes inequitable
distribution. Moreover, market-domination—a primary means
to this end—is similarly likely to streamline and concentrate
production practices in ways that are at once efficient and
toxic for both natural ecosystems and self-sustaining, local
production regimes.
As demonstrated, for example, in the era of European colonial
expansion and in the early 20th century emergence of massive
industrial monopolies in the U.S., the natural outcome of this
process of controlling the topography of advantage (and trade)
is a remarkable concentration of power in very few hands.
And this is by no means a now defunct historical trend.
Globally, the kind of economic interdependence that, over the
last quarter century, has resulted from intensive waves of
market integration is clearly characterized by a widening gap
between rich and poor, with roughly 80% of global resources
and wealth being controlled by and benefiting less than 20%
of the world's population. At least at the levels of national,
regional, and global economies for which there is significant
comparative data, currently prevailing patterns of trade
promote developmental inequality.
There has been a tendency to view the rise of developmental
 inequality as a function of already developed nations taking
too little responsibility for ratcheting up the developmental
cycle elsewhere and, perhaps, even taking severe advantage of
less developed economies. In other words, the tendency has
been to call into question the intentions of the developed
world and of the multinational corporations to whom
disproportionate profit flows through rapidly integrated
markets and global patterns of trade. Indeed, there may be
cases where major players steering the process of growing
global interdependence can rightly be charged with unduly
selfish strategies and even morally deficient motives. But
because of the wide array of such players and the complexity
of national or corporate intentionality, this provides very little
critical leverage, despite its rhetorical appeal. An intentional
analysis also falls short in not being readily conducive to
generating deep and critical historical perspective. The
intentions of even close associates are at times difficult to
ascertain. Those of actors greatly distant in time or
temperament are naturally much more so. Moreover, charges
of deficient motives can be dismissed as an inversion of the
"ad homrnem" argument: they indict those presently
benefiting most greatly from prevalent patterns of
globalization, rather than the system of values informing and
orienting such patterns.
To rephrase this in Buddhist conceptual terms, the karma of
presently prevailing patterns of global trade may be deflected
in accordance with self-centered or equity-denying intentions
held by major economic players: the most highly developed
nations and increasingly powerful multinational corporations.
But karma is always a complex function of values-intentions-
actions. Focusing exclusively on intentions amounts to
permitting a critical blindspot—a range of potentially crucial
phenomena left entirely out of consideration, especially when
the karma in question is not individual, but collective or
I have argued with respect to technology that such a critical
blindspot arises through a confusion of technologies with the
 tools to which they give rise, and an inappropriate tendency
to evaluate technologies in terms of how well these tools serve
us as individuals. In consequence, technologies are effectively
exempted from critical attention—that is, the values that
technologies embody and render ambient in societies
deploying them are critically occluded by the individual uses
to which tools are put. And because these tools are designed
and redesigned with the overarching mandate of increasing
utility and user-friendliness, this leads to blindly endorsing
continued technological development and deployment in a
particularly vicious form of critical circularity. The effects of
technology on the character and direction of relationships
(personal, communal, national, international, and global) are
functionally ignored.
Similarly, it is particularly dangerous to neglect assessing the
values underlying global patterns of trade through assuming
their "value-neutrality" and focusing instead on how trade
patterns are used by various actors. Indeed, while many
economists ostensibly view trade as a technology, they
actually treat it as a tool used by individual entrepreneurs,
corporations, countries, or regional associations (the EU or
ASEAN, for example). Trade is thus assumed to be properly
and adequately assessed in terms of how well it meets the
individual needs and interests of those engaging in trade.
Many economists then stress the fact that although global
trade does tend to bring about increased inequality, it also
makes both the rich and the poor richer. From this, they
conclude that while the benefits may be greater for some than
others, current patterns of global trade are good for each and
every one of the world's people. What they cannot conclude,
at the risk of committing the fallacy of composition, is that
what is good for each and every one of us, must be good for
all of us. The effects on a whole may be something entirely
other than the sum of effects on all its parts.
Like technologies, presently prevailing patterns of global trade
are not value neutral and cannot be accurately or adequately
assessed by measuring (even in statistical aggregates) their
 impact on individuals as such. Neither can their ill effect of
fostering developmental inequality be traced solely back to
unjust motives in how they are used. Rather, contemporary
patterns of trade can only be critically evaluated by seeing
how the constellation of values structuring global trade affect
how we relate, as individuals, as countries, and as members
of expanding global communities. At the center of this
constellation, I would argue, are the related values of control
and choice that structure the operation of markets.
Global trade presently apportions unequal benefits to the
already developed and advantaged and disproportionately
exports the costs of economic growth to those least able to
bear these costs. On one hand, this means that the present
system of trade fosters a growing "capacity gap" that results
in the vast majority of the world's population being in a
relatively poorer and poorer position both to contribute to
others and to be contributed to by them. Although they may
be better off over time in absolute terms, in relative terms
they will always be worse off. On the other hand, by bearing
the cost burden—for example, in terms of environmental
degradation—of benefits they do not receive, it is practically
assured that their capability for responding to the challenges
of their own situation will prove increasingly inadequate. As it
is currently configured, global trade will never bring about
true poverty alleviation because poverty is its primary byproduct.
This admittedly iconoclastic claim is not in any way a claim
about the intentions of those who have initiated and
sustained the kinds of global trade we now experience in
everyday ways. Neither is it a claim—like that central to
Marxist critiques of global capital—that rests upon an
assumed historical necessity or developmental teleology.
Rather, it is simply a claim about the history of how things
have come to be, as they have come to be. It is a claim about
how large-scale patterns of relationship are systematically
oriented toward the demise of productive diversity through
growing trade focused on increasing wealth through market
 domination and accelerating profit, making use of
technologies biased toward the strategic value of control to
promote market freedoms centered on choice. Like the efforts
of the hapless king in the Cakkavatti Sihanda Sutta who tries
to restore social order and prosperity through the increasing
exercise of control, the intentions of those promoting more
extensive global trade may be quite positive. But the values
embedded in their strategies for poverty alleviation—contrary
to their explicit intentions—are sending things sprraling
further and further away from their ostensive goal. In effect,
they are good for economic growth and marketization. But
they also make the elimination of poverty impossible.
These "ironic effects" of global trade are in large measure a
result of the corrosive effect of dense and extensive market
operations on small-scale production ecologies. From the late
19 th century onward, the development of global capitalism
and competitive market-driven production has been marked
by a decisive shift from local-to-local exchanges to local-
global-local transfer currents. Whereas the rate and density of
local-to-local trade exchanges turned on naturally variable,
vernacular negotiations of needs and values, the velocity of
local-global-local transfer currents could be subjected to
relatively overt control through price manipulation. In effect,
production could be used to drive demand. This enabled
global capital to engineer an extremely rapid spread of
markets and the conversion of an unprecedented range of
goods and services into mass-produced and mass-consumed
commodities. The result has been the consolidation of a
globally coordinated economic system that is very well suited
to meeting individual needs and wants, benefiting some more
than others, but clearly benefiting all in easily quantifiable
A significant cost of this consolidation, however, has been the
rapid growth of global production monocultures that disrupt
and erode local ecologies of production and consumption—
those porously bounded domains within which interlocked
producers    actively    and    sustarnably    contribute    to    one
 another's welfare. Locally, this means a loss of the range of
productive differences that allow members of a local
community to make a difference for one another. In Ivan
Illich's terms, this brings about the "institutionalization of
entirely new classes of the poor," or what in Buddhist terms
could be referred to as the systematic depletion of the
appreciative and contributory resources required for
sustained bodhisattva action.
It should be stressed that this was not an explicitly intended
effect of rapidly consolidating markets and production
regimes. Rather, the linking of rapid economic growth with
increasing poverty can be traced to values embedded in the
technologically triggered efficiencies that dissolved geographic
and related temporal constraints on the expansion of markets
and that also powerfully affected the content (and karma) of
those markets. Global trade ceased being limited to highly
durable goods, typically of high unit cost. Trade in luxuries—
for example, in silks, spices, and precious metals and
stones—continued to be important. But the overall scope of
global trade spread to include ever-greater kinds and
quantities of non-luxury and subsistence goods. The
economic logic is not particularly complicated. Expanding
markets require expanding consumer bases—an expansion
that can be driven only so far by falling prices associated with
efficiencies in production and transportation. Sustained
market growth is only possible if the range of goods traded
undergoes similar growth. Especially once markets have
become global, trade expansion can only be stably realized
through increasing trade density.
The growth imperative of heightened trade density has
resulted practically in the commodification of all subsistence
goods and services, effectively displacing local production
regimes and vernacular negotiations of value. Importantly, as
the range of goods transferred into a local economy nears the
point of natural saturation, meeting all extant needs, further
market growth depends on the creation of new needs and
desires,   and  new problems  to   be   solved.   This  has  been
 accomplished through aggressive advertising regimes that
systematically extend the spectrum of goods perceived as
necessary and/ or desirable; through the increasingly detailed
problematizing of daily life; and through the emergence of
industries that commodify an increasingly broad array of
previously "non-economic" services. Simply put, the
continued increase of market density pivots on creating new
kinds and numbers of both problems and wants.
Recommending the expanded and dense markets that result
from intensive commodification and advertising are reliability,
standardized products and product compatibility,
convenience, and heightened possibilities for exercising
freedom of choice. The monetary medium of global transfers
of goods and services also guarantees that wage-earning
employment invariably is fostered by expanding markets. In
fact, the transition from barter to cash is crucial to
marketization processes. Markets are fueled by consumption
and consumption is facilitated by the use of cash and credit.
In advanced market economies, then, employment tends to be
high and relatively inclusive, at first available and then
necessary not only for adult men, but also for women and
previously marginalized minority populations.
Greater employment opportunities for all—especially women
and minorities—as well as greater access to the goods and
services offered by the market, can and have been celebrated
as signs of successful development and as key to poverty
alleviation. Futures that traditionally have been somewhat
narrow in prospect have been manifestly widened. Choices
have multiplied. And there is certainly no reasonable
argument against this in principle: the professional
opportunities now open to women and minorities, for example,
mark a real, significant, and entirely welcome enhancement of
their possibilities for social contribution.
But focusing on the positive effects on individual members of
communities or individual classes is, all the same, to
dangerously restrict our ability to evaluate how such changes
 affect qualities of relationship more broadly. It is to fail
questioning whether we are better or worse off if increasing
choice is taken as definitive—both necessary and sufficient—
for increasing freedom. Indeed, once the critical bias toward
individuals is abandoned, it manifestly follows that if the poor
are invariably worse off in relative terms as a result of the
historical pattern of economic development sketched above,
then they are in some significant degree also relationally
dis ad vantaged.
It is not just that "old growth" production ecologies are
replaced by more efficient systems. Their replacement
signifies a loss of overall local productive diversity: the
depletion of the personal and community resources required
for responding to changing circumstances and meaningfully
meeting local needs. People lose the distinctively different
positions from which they were able to contribute directly to
their own and others' welfare—a loss of capacities for
innovation, for shared improvisation, for on-site learning, and
for appreciating (literally adding value to) their situation. The
globalization of both production and consumption values and
practices brings with it an erosion of the differences that
allow people to truly make a difference for one another. This
is not—as feared by some early advocates for resisting or
reversing globalization—because everyone is made "the same"
and differences are completely erased. Rather, it is because
the meaning of difference is radically altered as diversity is
systematically translated into mere variety. Differences
remain, but they no longer are relevant in the sense of
contributing to making a meaningful difference.
For many, this statement will seem overstated, if not simply
false. Although it is easy to idealize village life or pre-
industrial Arcadias, these are generally agreed to be just that:
idealizations and fictions that bear little resemblance to what
were often sordidly narrow ways of life. The Buddha's own
description of his insight into interdependence as like coming
across a lost and forgotten city is interesting in its association
of urban life with vibrant appreciation of the interdependence
 among all beings. There is much to recommend contemporary
urban life in terms of creative opportunities and lifestyle
innovation, but also in terms of overall material security,
longevity, and the availability of specialized expertise.
Yet, as made clear in the chronicle of socio-political collapse
and urban decay that lies at the center of the Cakkavatti-
Sihanda Sutta, there is nothing essentially liberating about
urban environments. The fact that they promote
specialization and a proliferation of new types of relationships
does not mean that they necessarily promote increasing
capacities for relating freely or exercising the kind of creativity
that is both virtuosic and liberating. Following the analysis
forwarded in the Sakkapanha Sutta, like pleasure,
displeasure and equanimity, freedom can be conducive to
either wholesomely virtuosic eventualities or the opposite. At
least as understood in Buddhist terms, fully addressing the
suffering that arises with poverty requires distinguishing
between the disparate karma—the disparate patterns of
outcome and opportunity—that result from exercising
virtually unlimited freedoms of choice and from contributing
The kind of trade and development now dominant in the
world, and which underlie most poverty alleviation strategies,
are functionally dependent on institutionalizing and valorizing
consumption. Although workers engaged at any given point of
the production and marketing process can intellectually or in
abstract terms see their efforts as contributing meaningfully
to the welfare of those who consume market-delivered
commodities, the signal and culminating economic event and
the answer to poverty is simply increased consumption. Trade
finally signifies only a transfer of possession and the freedom
it affords is the freedom of choosing between market-delivered
alternatives. While such a freedom may well lead to a
decrease of eventualities that are experienced as akusala or
unwholesome, unskillful, and inexpert, it does not lead to the
increase of eventualities that exhibit increasingly wholesome
and   skillful   expressions   of  appreciative   and   contributory
This is not primarily a function of deficiencies on the part of
workers or consumers, but rather a dynamic necessity of
present-day markets, based on the karma they establish
through their embedded values. Because of the demands for
expanded and increasingly dense markets, global scale trade
compresses the utility of consumed goods or services to the
smallest unit measure possible. Through the advertised
inculcation of desire and through the constriction of the
popular imagination, conditions are realized such that
individual acts of consumption only fleetingly answer needs.
The classic example of this is, of course, the institution of
fashion (the history of which long predates the contemporary
market, but at vastly restricted scales). Fashion effectively
seeks to establish strict temporal, spatial, and cultural limits
on product usefulness. But the phenomenon is quite general,
and it is finally such compressions of utility that "open" the
space required for multiplying choices. As a consequence of
this, most goods, once acquired, are used very briefly, if at all.
Even goods used frequently are seldom used to the point of
being functionally worn out. Obsolescence—real or
perceived—is crucial to growing markets. Yet, as markets
become increasingly extensive and dense, consumers
necessarily begin functioning as producers of waste. Or, more
graphically stated, they begin to serve as organs of
elimination by means of which the (material and experiential)
residue of profit making is summarily disposed.
Poverty: The Most Egregious Economic Externality
This brings us to the crux of why growth driven economic
development ironically brings about greater poverty. The
imperative of growth driven economic development is to
maximally extend and deepen market operations. This is an
imperative to commodify as many existing types and patterns
of goods and services as possible, but also to create new
wants (both desires and perceived needs) and new kinds of
problems (open to market solution). Necessarily associated
with the ratcheting up of commodity consumption are rising
 income and employment levels and general progress in terms
of broad human development and security. Material poverty,
as measured by low income, lack of access to goods and
services, and restricted life and livelihood choices, is clearly
mitigated, even if populations at the lower end of the income
spectrum are—in relative terms—disproportionately
disadvantaged by rapid growth and development.
Also associated, however, with the maximization of market
extent and density is a rnrnimizing of the gap between
consumption and waste. Starkly stated, the cost of being able
to choose among almost infinite arrays of goods and services
as a market-enabled consumer is the loss of meaningful
opportunities for appreciation or adding value. This
qualitatively affects a wide range of relationships. It means
the loss of sustained opportunities for caring-about and
carrng-for one's situation and those with whom it is shared. It
means the loss of opportunities for creative enhancement, or
for contribution in more general terms. It also means the loss
of opportunity for edifying conduct—for endeavors that add
value to oneself or that effectively put one in a more valuable
If poverty is understood in Buddhist terms as a chronic
condition of contributory impasse rooted in the breakdown of
appreciative and contributory mutuality—an occlusion of
emptiness or mutual relevance in social, economic, and
political terms—then virtually alloying consumption and the
production of waste cannot help but generate poverty. It
cannot avoid systematically converting diversity into mere
variety and eroding our personal and communal capabilities
for making meaningful differences to and for one another.
The karmic implications of consumption-to-waste driven
production of poverty are most clearly and powerfully
illustrated in the dynamics of the attention economy that
began consolidating over the past quarter century in post-
industrial societies and that is now a global phenomenon. In
this still emerging economy, it is no longer material goods,
 services, or information/knowledge that are the most basic
resource commodities, but attention itself. Lasting goods and
services are no longer the focus of production, but rather the
production of inherently fleeting meanings. In such an
economy, "value-added" signifies nothing more or less than
attention captured. As attention is systematically exported
from local contexts (family and community, for example),
primarily through intensive mass media consumption, it is no
longer available for appreciating and contributing to one's
immediate situation. It is, with respect to contributing to the
welfare of one's family, neighborhood, or local community,
attention wasted.
In much the same way that the conversion of capital to
money allows its maximally fluid distribution, the attention
economy effectively converts awareness from a qualitatively
complex relationship to a minimally structured—that is,
minimally committed—energy source. As the attention
economy grows, personal and community capabilities for
sustained appreciative and contributory virtuosity diminish.
World Health Organization projections of an epidemic
increase of depression in developed and developing economies
(already rated as the most important factor of morbidity and
lowered life quality of women in the developed world) is a
particularly chilling commentary on the correlation of
prevailing development processes, their social ramifications,
and the erosion of meaning-making capability.
The consumption of mass media commodities lies at one end
of the spectrum of goods and services afforded by global
markets and growth-driven economic development, and
exhibits with particular force the ironic effects of market- and
growth-driven strategies for poverty alleviation. The range of
choices provided by the mass media for directly managing or
controlling the content of one's experience, while not infinite,
is practically unlimited. In consequence, acts of mass media
consumption have an undeniably high probability of being
effective at literally alleviating the experience of (especially
material)   poverty.   Such   acts   manifestly   and   immediately
 make life more bearable. And, indeed, this is part of the
problem with such acts. They are literally immediate: they
absorb attention energy and with minimal opportunity for
building relational capacity, convert it to waste. They close
the space needed for sustained cultivation of virtuosity. By
exporting attention from the locally current contexts in which
it could be turned to the cultivation and consolidation of
appreciative and contributory resources, mass media
consumption establishes conditions that prohibit eliminating
poverty. As is the case with all patterns of consumption that
lead to the contraction of opportunities for adding value to
our immediate situation, media consumption institutionalizes
conditions under which bearing poverty will be unavoidable.
It should be noted that the effects of such patterns of
consumption—the karma that they establish—are much more
pronounced for the poor than for the rich. This is not only
because the poor are circumstantially disposed to pay greater
attention to cheap and readily available mass media
commodities as a way of managing their experience. For
example, the poor are much more likely to avail themselves of
fast food and to bear the health and aesthetic costs of doing
so. Being poor also means being positioned only to purchase
commodities of the sort that immediately decrease in value
the moment they are purchased.
This is most obviously true of fast food. Unlike a gourmet
meal that might be remembered for a lifetime, spur increased
culinary creativity, or open new imaginative vistas, fast food
is almost immediately and entirely converted to (low quality)
bodily energy and waste products. But the same is true of
groceries, clothing, household goods, appliances, and so on.
The instant these goods are purchased, they decrease in
value—a fact that anyone wishing to sell even a one-day old
automobile well understands. The rich, however, are able to
invest. That is, they are able to purchase goods (for example,
works of fine art and jewelry, stocks and bonds, and
businesses) and services (for example, elite university
educations  or  life-skills  training)   that  have,   at  least,   the
 potential to increase in value over time. The ability to invest is
one of the reasons that micro-loans work as well as they do.
Micro-loans allow the poor to cut sufficiently through the
contributory impasse in which they find themselves to realize
real gains in both absolute and relative terms. Whether this
investment is carried out wisely or unwisely will, of course,
determine the economic outcome. But in terms of
immediately broadening or deepening the capacities for
relating freely that are experienced by the poor, micro-loans
are remarkably effective. The experience of Hindu
untouchables that have followed the example of B. R.
Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism suggests that the
removal of conceptual limits to investing in one's own
capacity for self-enhancement can be just as, or more,
effective in exiting the severest kinds of contributory blockage
as micro-loans.
But such approaches will, at best, serve to alleviate the
poverty of specific populations or members of populations.
Alone, they will not address the total structural conditions
that presently insure that while poverty may seem more
bearable in relative terms, it will be no less widespread or
karmically debilitating. Insofar as such approaches do not
address the social, economic, cultural, and political systems
that have institutionalized the conditions of poverty, they will
not be capable of truly eliminating poverty in the fullest sense.
The key to doing so is to take overall patterns and qualities of
relationships and the values inflecting them as the basis for
evaluating prospects, policies, and practices for poverty
elimination. Alleviation, while it may be better than nothing,
is by no means good enough.
Some Practical Implications
As evidenced in the cautionary tale embedded in the
Cakkavatti Sihanda Sutta and in the Sakkapanha Sutta,
whether a particular strategy or practice for relieving poverty
is finally constraining or liberating depends on whether it is
directed in alignment with ignorance (avidya), fixed habit
formations (samskara), and craving desires (tanha), or with
 wisdom (prajna), attentive mastery (samadhi), and moral
clarity (sila). Development, in the broadest, Buddhist sense,
should consist of movement toward realizing patterns of
relationship that serve to bring increased productive
diversity—that is, patterns of mutual contribution that
appreciate or add value to an irreducibly shared situation.
Development is then consonant with, and is deepened
through, cultivating wisdom, attentive mastery, and moral
As stated earlier, such a view of development can be seen as
an implication of the traditional Buddhist valorization of
bodhisattvas (enlightening beings) and skilled relational
attunement (upaya). In Chan Buddhist terms, development
should bring about increased commitments and capacities for
"according with any situation, responding as needed" (Ch.:
sui-shih-ying-yung). This suggests seeing the path of
liberating trade and development as a particular
manifestation of the path of realizing the emptiness of all
things—that is, realizing the potential of all beings for mutual
relevance or meaningful difference. It is a path that can be
taken up anywhere and traveled without end. Truly liberating
trade and development promote opening ourselves to one
another in that utterly proximate way needed to truly make a
difference for one another. They mean committing to
extending/enhancing community rather than
expanding/deepening markets. They mean achieving high
contributory and productive diversity, not high commodity
variety and consumption density. Only in this way is it
possible for each and every one of us to realize that the very
place in which we find ourselves is a place of immeasurable
meanings and value. This is the ultimate meaning of fully
alleviating or eliminating poverty.
What, however, is the practical relevance of such an
extraordinarily ambitious goal? Is it possible to translate the
"ultimate meaning" of fully alleviating poverty into policies
that will concretely and appropriately transform existing
practices and institutions? That such a translation process
 should not prove impossible is given indirect warrant by
Nagarjuna's assertion that while there is a crucial difference
between conventional truth (lokasamvritisatya) and ultimate
truth (paramarthasatya), it is only on the basis of everyday
practices (vyavahara) that ultimate meaning can be taught
(Mulamadhyamikakakarika, Ch. 24). That is, the ultimate
truth or meaning of poverty must be expressible in everyday
A useful general framework for carrying out such a
translation can be gleaned from the fourth chapter of the
Lotus Sutra. Here, there is recounted a story in which a
wealthy father skillfully draws his long wayward son back
into the family and a position to be able to claim his rightful
inheritance. The son has been so long absent and has fallen
into such poverty that he no longer recognizes his ancestral
home or his father. Homeless and indigent, he first thinks to
go begging at an estate that—unknown to him—is actually his
own inheritance. But on seeing his father and the work being
carried out on the premises, and fearing being drafted into
forced labor, he thinks it better to go to the village of the poor
and seek work and subsistence there.
Recognizing his son at a glance, but also his son's lack of
readiness to return to his rightful place, the father initiates a
gradual process of drawing his son out of poverty and back
into the family. This process consists of bringing out his son's
talents and innate virtues in the context of a scaled series of
work activities, with each new activity entailing both greater
responsibilities and greater opportunity for building up a
sense of valued placement as a contributing member of a
complex and thriving business and trade community.
It is an important point of the narrative that the son is poor
as a function of his own ignorance. His poverty is a result of
not understanding the true nature of his connection with his
father—hence his departure from the family as a youth—and
of being ignorant of any meaningful connection whatsoever
with his family and its estate.  In less metaphorical terms,
 poverty arises through values-intentions-actions that occlude
awareness of the interdependence among all things and that
thus inflects interdependence in an akusala or unwholesome
manner. But the narrative also makes clear that poverty is
not just a result of the values-intentions-actions of the poor.
The father, too, has no idea of the whereabouts of his son
until he appears, as if by accident. The village of the poor in
which the son thinks to take refuge from forced labor for the
wealthy—a refuge that he sees as at least guaranteeing his
subsistence needs—is clearly a "world apart" from that of his
family and its businesses. The ignorance is mutual and the
karma for the occurrence of poverty is shared.
The shared karma between those who are poor and those who
are wealthy is not limited to the arising of poverty. It also
extends to the alleviation or elimination of poverty. The
turning point is when the son's good karmic roots bring him
into view of his father who recognizes him instantly, seeing
beyond the conditions of poverty masking his son's true
nature or relational capabilities. Poverty arises, takes root,
and persists only to the extent that its conditions are ignored
by those not yet poor. Poverty does not just happen. It is not
a simple function of purely natural conditions like a drought.
Poverty is a complexly afflicted quality of life that is always in
some degree inflicted. As the Lotus Sutra story stresses
through the trope of forgotten paternity and as was central to
the drama of the Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta, since the poor are
afflicted with poverty only because they are not properly
attended by those not yet poor, poverty is inevitably at once
ironic and tragic.
The solution to poverty given metaphorically in the Lotus
Sutra has two major dimensions: first, discontinuing
ignorance of the poor and making a place for them within the
overlapping and integrated contributory networks of the local
socio-economic and natural ecosystems; and secondly,
providing the poor with clear avenues for mounting
contributions to those ecosystems. An important element in
the Lotus Sutra narrative is that alleviating and eventually
 eliminating poverty involves drawing the poor into
increasingly responsible positions that allow them to make an
ever more significant difference for others, but also for
There is much that is policy relevant in such an
understanding of the basic dynamics of poverty alleviation.
First, and very much in keeping with the karmic liabilities
that formed the ironic core of the depiction of social collapse
in the Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta, poverty alleviation cannot be
accomplished through one-time, one-way gifts or welfare state
supports. More positively framed, the provision of material or
financial welfare (in the form of simple handouts) does not
establish sufficient relational connections between the poor
and those who are not for the poor to truly benefit. By
themselves, material or financial means for exiting poverty are
not enough. Much more important, in actuality, is the
provision of concrete and well-defined contributory
opportunities for the poor.
As illustrated in the Lotus story, it is not that the poor are
unaware of the world that has set them apart. They can
approach that world—the world of full employment and
business and trade, for example. But they cannot imagine
how they would fit into such a world—not, at least, without
being even further disadvantaged. As poverty deepens, it
begins effecting an atrophy of imaginative capacity that
renders the poor less and less capable of seeing the
possibilities in a given situation. Poverty means being in a
poor position to appreciate present opportunities, to see how
a situation can be opened up for sustained flourishing.
It must be immediately stressed, however, that this
imaginative atrophy is not primarily rooted in any lack of
individual intelligence, creativity, and insightfulness among
the poor. It is function of relational constriction—the systemic
shrinking and closure of relational possibilities that is a
signal manifestation of the suffering associated with
deepening poverty. In the Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta, this is
 metaphorically represented in the rapidly decreasing lifetimes
and vitality that accompany poverty-triggered social collapse.
Increasing poverty brings with it decreasing relational scope,
shorter spans of sustained attention, and eventually severe
crises of commitment.
As is true for addressing the atrophy of physical abilities, the
counteractive to poverty-induced relational constriction and
imaginative atrophy is to steadily build up strength through a
clear and open pathway or trajectory of incremental capability
development. This need not mean a top-down, expertly
designed program for the "improvement" of the poor. Such
plans—like those of the hapless king in the Cakkavatti-
Sihanda Sutta—can very easily backfire if the values
embedded in them are not consonant with the needs of those
who are intended to benefit from them. Indeed, if the problem
is an atrophy of relational imagination and creative capability,
it is quite clear that this cannot be "given" to the poor. The
task is to provide concrete and clear relational openings for
the poor to develop their appreciative and contributory
resources, while at the same time drawing them into
sustained attention training, building the basic resources
needed to develop and sustain appreciative and contributory
A major implication of this is that there must be a clear
absence of structural limits, from the perspective of the poor,
for building and exercising appreciative and contributory
virtuosity. There must, in other words, not be any
institutionalized ceilings that cap the enhancement of both
commitments to and resources for offering. Insuring, for
example, that the poor have ready access to low wage jobs,
but nothing more, may alleviate the worst of material poverty
but will not bring about the ultimate elimination of poverty.
Providing education through secondary school is valued and
valuable to the extent that it leads to enhanced employment
opportunities—opportunities to offer new abilities and
knowledge. But if such employment opportunities are not
available   and   people   are   effectively   forced   to   work   in
 capacities that are not challenging, their imaginative capacity
will again atrophy and their poverty will become further
It is in connection with employment that the karmic liabilities
of understanding freedom in terms of choice come most
clearly into focus. Poverty alleviation initiatives that center on
job creation are strategically committed to providing
employment options and increasing individual and gross
national income levels. Such options and income increases
are measurable in purely quantitative terms, and this would
seem to imply that poverty alleviation is or can be measured
similarly. However, options are not the same as opportunities
and—especially as defined in Buddhist terms—poverty is not
essentially a function of low income. The sheer number of
available jobs—the vast majority of which may be low-wage
and unskilled—is not a measure of the qualitative possibilities
for relational enhancement that are indicative of robust
employment opportunity and the sustained enrichment of
appreciative and contributory resources on which the promise
of poverty elimination ultimately depends. Being free to
choose among (typically low-wage) job options is not the same
as being personally enabled and structurally empowered to
relate freely in the context of any given situation, as it has
come to be.
Poverty alleviation must, that is, be both driven by and
measured in qualitative, relational terms. Globally, perhaps
the clearest mandate for moving in this direction is given in
the Bhutanese development agenda of increasing gross
national happiness, not merely gross national product. This
agenda effectively insists that happiness, and not growth,
serve as the signal value of development. Although the
specific concept of happiness to which appeal is made will
clearly affect the karma associated with such a development
agenda, it nevertheless represents a decisive turn away from
the quantitative value of growth toward a value—and hence a
pattern of outcomes and opportunities—that is irreducibly
 Issues of Measurement
This raises, of course, serious questions about measurement.
How might a qualitatively oriented poverty alleviation
initiative be reliably and accurately evaluated? What
measures might be used to gauge even relative success and
failure? Here, it is perhaps sufficient to simply argue for the
possibility of measuring poverty alleviation in irreducibly
qualitative terms since the most virulent critics will insist that
any such measurements will unavoidably be subjective in
nature and thus inevitably open to objective contest.
As Thomas Kasulis has pointed out in the context of working
through the heuristic implications of distinguishing between
intimacy and integrity oriented cultural dispositions,
evaluations that are explicitly both qualitative and objective
are entirely familiar. They form the core of judging, for
example, gymnastic, musical, and artistic competitions.
Doing so requires intimate knowledge of the activity being
judged—a knowledge that is experientially and relationally
acquired and conditioned, and yet that is also profoundly
consensual. The same will inevitably be true of judging or
evaluating qualitatively driven poverty alleviation initiatives.
The most reliable, insightful, and objective judges will be
those who have mastered the relational capacities and
resources relevant to the qualities or values in question.
Given the dynamics of poverty generation and elimination—at
least as understood in the Buddhist terms that have been
suggested in this paper—it would seem that skill in offering
would be one well-defined relational nexus through which a
poverty alleviation initiative might be qualitatively and yet
objectively assessed. The skilled performance of offering, in
other words, can be reliably indexed in terms of appreciative
and contributory virtuosity.
This said, however, care must be taken to keep in mind the
implied caution given in the Sakkapanha Sutta: even such
valued qualities of relationship and experience as happiness
and equanimity can, under certain conditions, be conducive
 to unwholesome or akusala turns of events. An ironic and
tragic contemporary instance of this might be the use of a
Buddhist-inflected political rhetoric of offering by the military
junta in Myanmar to encourage participation in manifestly
unskillful attempts to establish national security and order.
Finally, policies are only as virtuosic as the values-intentions-
actions through which they are concretely embodied. The
ultimate direction and dynamics of poverty alleviation depend
crucially, then, on both the virtuosity and the virtue of those
framing and enacting policy—their wisdom, attentive mastery,
and moral clarity.
The ultimate antidote to poverty—the key to its skillful
alleviation and final elimination—is the "noble wealth" that
results from a clear and committed practice of benefiting and
resolving the suffering of all sentient beings. To some degree,
this will almost always entail "facing the world and going
crosswise"—Chan master Linji's way of summarizing what his
great-grandfather in the Dharma, Mazu, referred to as the
practice of "benefiting what cannot be benefited, and doing
what cannot be done." The conventional reality of our
situation, as it has come to be, is that poverty cannot be
globally eliminated. Ultimately, however, that is precisely
what we must do, moment by increasingly virtuosic moment.
The path of poverty alleviation may be endless, yet we must
vow to travel it all.


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