Friday, March 20, 2015

Glomart and Gaia

"Welcome, Glomart shoppers!"

About ten (or more) years ago, I thus opened a satiric piece (now lost, somewhere in my chaotic papers in the attic) in which I assumed the persona of a corporate tour guide, cheerfully introducing his customers to their new planet-sized mall called "Glomart" (an obvious sendup of names like "Walmart" or "K-mart"), where everything is for sale, and all unpleasant consequences of this fact (like pollution, extinction, exploitation, and poverty) are skillfully hidden from consumers' view.

The name "Glomart" stuck, however, and through my various internet correspondences and teaching since that time, has gained some currency among my friends and students, as a kind of shorthand for the Global Market Economy, the oligarchic monstrosity based on the zero-sum logic of money, consisting of multinational corporations and their client states (now including the USA) that has just about achieved its goal of turning our entire world into commodities for sale to enrich their stockholders.

I therefore define Glomart as the Order of Money, manifested above all in multinational corporations--a complex adaptive (or maladaptive) system of  acculturation which operates according to four basic rules, which are the unspoken major premises of all deliberations in corporate boardrooms, and of all advertising as well:

  1. More is always Better.  This rule is implicit in the logic of money--since one plus one always equals two.
  2. You Are what you Own. In order to keep making profits, corporations must constantly create new demands in consumers. They do this by conveying this message in all their advertising: that one's possessions are the basis of one's personal identity and value.
  3. Nothing has Value until it has a Price. Therefore nothing--including land, air, or water, biodiversity, or community, can possibly matter to any corporation, unless you can put a boundary around it and can sell it as a commodity for a profit.
  4. The Bottom Line is the Bottom Line.  This is the sole criterion for any decision a corporation makes--by necessity and design according to the intrinsic logic of money. If it makes a profit, it is good; if it does not, it is bad--regardless of what "It" is.

I find this new term "Glomart" more useful than traditional terms such as "capitalism"--which is a misnomer on several accounts.  First, it is not, per se, an "-ism" or consciously embraced ideology; rather, it is a natural and logical consequence of the profit motive, the desire for more that we all share. . It is also the direct manifestation of the inherent zero-sum logic of money: if I have it, you don't.  And money itself is nothing but arithmetic--it is an arithmetical transform of information about the marginal value of commodities on the market.

Secondly, the term "capitalism" fails to distinguish between commerce per se--the process of making, growing, or procuring commodities and selling them to others--and the pathologies of commerce that result from both the scale of the enterprise, its power to suppress the truth about its harmful side-effects, and its lobbying power to prevent regulation in the public interest by elected officials or government agencies. Thus the term implies that the friendly clerk at one's neighborhood mom and pop store somehow falls into the same toxic category as Monsanto Corporation, as a potential planet-wrecking monster.

There is nothing wrong, however, with commerce per se--it does everything its advocates claim, by promoting competition and innovation, by providing employment, and by encouraging creativity, and--of course, by providing the goods and services we want or need at prices we are willing to pay. So we need to distinguish the pathologies of commerce from commerce itself, and the concept of "capitalism" muddles this distinction. (Incidentally, I have borrowed the useful term "Pathologies of Commerce" from a superb documentary that critically analyzes and investigates Glomart, entitled The Corporation, which is available on YouTube).The Corporation

So what are these pathologies? They all derive from the fact that corporate charters have one overriding legal obligation: to make a growing profit for their shareholders. For this reason, and since they are all in competition with one another for profits, they have no intrinsic basis for distinguishing between socially adaptive and socially maladaptive ways of making a profit. The socially adaptive ways I have already mentioned: providing ever-improving commodities at an affordable price, providing employment, encouraging innovation, and so on. We all want new and better products and services, and don't mind paying for them.

The socially maladaptive ways of making a profit, however, are often invisible to us, since making them known is bad for business. That's why we don't see them advertised or discussed on corporate-owned news programs. They consist of the following (as beautifully set forth in The Corporation):

  1. Exploitation of Workers.  For any large corporation, wages and salaries are seen as a cost of doing business, not--as they often are--a benefit to the larger community. Therefore, multinational corporations must compete with one another in a "race to the bottom" to find the cheapest available labor--to bust unions, to ship jobs overseas, to lay off workers as they become superfluous, etc.  High unemployment is destructive to society, but is beneficial to corporations, since those who get jobs are then likely to settle for less without complaint
  2. Externalization of Costs. Glomart has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from passing on the long-term social and environmental costs of doing business to the public. Hence they have every incentive to oppose regulations on pollution or other destructive practices (such as corporate agriculture with fertilizers and pesticides, or real estate development to blot out forests, fields, waterfronts, and wetlands) and to finance politicians who will do their bidding in defeating any new legislation that promotes the public interest in clean air, water, or topsoil. 
  3. Deception. Corporations spend billion on advertising, through which they influence and intimidate news outlets to prevent them from publicizing any information that puts them in a bad light, even if that information obviously serves the public interest.  
  4. Corruption. Since governments and elected officials are the only available means the larger public has to regulate the behavior of the corporate sector, multinational corporations have collaborated worldwide to corrupt the political process by intensive lobbying and massive campaign contributions, with the result that today, any politician who dares to do his job of protecting the public interest against corporate profiteering will likely lose his job due to massive infusion of corporate money to his opponent.
  5.  The Mandate for Expansion. Since money is nothing but arithmetic, and the number line is infinite, corporations must continue to grow in order to compete--there is no choice, and hence no concept of "enough" in the corporate world.  Hence we currently have a global economy that is utterly dependent on the infinite expansion of production and consumption--in a finite world. This is a recipe for ecological catastrophe, which is already happening--though Glomart is intent to suppress this information as well, since such news as climate change, rising extinction rates, cancer rates from pollution, etc. are all bad for business. Nothing can challenge the major premise of Glomart--that "More is always better"--lest the whole system collapse.
So what is a Gaian to do?  We can first recognize that the basic production rules of Glomart are the polar opposite of the sustaining values of a finite living planet--and act accordingly. So think of it this way:

  1. Whereas Glomart uses advertising, 24/7, to tell us that More is always better, we can begin--today--to act on the assumption that Enough is Enough.  
  2. Whereas Glomart tells us that We are what we own, we can remember the truth: We are what we do. 
  3. Whereas Glomart tells us that Nothing has value until it has a Price, we can embrace the priceless--love, friendship, community, but also protection of birds, wildflowers, forests, rivers, and oceans...knowing that Value is Incalculable, because it is implicit in relatedness.
  4. Whereas Glomart tells itself that The Bottom Line is the Bottom Line,  we can remember that Life itself is what matters--our own, that of others, and of other beings and ecosystems, not only now, but for all future generations.
Only by embracing and disseminating these contrary life-sustaining values as antidotes to Glomart brainwashing can we hope to become agents for the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.

So be it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Subduing Mara

Mara is the Buddhist version of the Devil--a mythic personification of all that distracts us from the path of enlightenment, including both desires and fears--Eros and Thanatos. (For an interesting and useful Dharma talk on the symbolism of Mara, check out )

 In this image from Thailand, for example, Mara is represented as an army of demons on our right (the Buddha's left) attacking the Buddha, as he sits in perfect equanimity under the Bodhi tree. In response, the Buddha touches the Earth with his right hand, to call upon the Earth Goddess (the voluptuous deity represented below) to witness his victory over the forces of evil, and she obliges, in this iconography, by rinsing out her long hair, thus causing the demons on our left (the Buddha's right) to drown in the resulting deluge (an image similar to that of the Red Sea inundating the Egyptian army in the Old Testament).

I found this icon interesting this morning, simply because the Earth Goddess figure--the Thai equivalent of Gaia--is represented with such voluptuous beauty.  For many other stories associate sensuality with the Daughters of Mara, likewise sent forth to distract the Buddha from his meditation, and likewise failing. So in this way, Mara represents both fear and aggression (as symbolized by the demon army) and sexual allure (as represented by the daughters). Yet here, the voluptuous Earth Goddess is represented as the ally of the Buddha, effortlessly washing away the demons.

I was reminded of the erotic aspect of Mara yesterday, when a performance of Richard Strauss's operatic rendition of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play Salome came on the radio. Since I find merely listening to opera on the radio rather boring without the visuals, I went onto YouTube, where I found a spectacular production in full, starring Maria Ewing, an exotic and multiethnic opera star, in a scorching performance of this iconic femme fatale--a figure in our cultural history who personifies both the erotic and destructive aspects of Mara.

The opera culminates in the notorious Dance of the Seven Veils, an alluring dance and strip act that Salome performs to tempt her lascivious uncle Herod to grant her non-negotiable demand for John the Baptist's head. In Wilde's (and Strauss's) telling of the story, she wants his head on a platter because he (like the Buddha) has resisted her allure, and spurned her own desire for him as the one man she could not conquer--a desire she culminates by kissing the severed head on the mouth.

In this performance of the dance, moreover, the talented and provocative Ewing goes all the way, beginning enshrouded in multicolored veils, and peeling off each veil in a breathtakingly frenetic and sensuous dance, and ending up completely nude, in a statuesque pose.

Her intensely erotic performance was so alluring and captivating that it set my hormonal juices flowing, so that I have had difficulty erasing this image from my mind. For, old as I am, I am still, at root, an animal--still susceptible to feminine allure--to the Daughters of Mara. Yet a man of my age (65) needs to be especially wary of such erotic feelings, lest he end up a pantaloon, a humiliated dirty old man, like the besotted professor in the classic German film Blue Angel.

All of which brings me back to my original question about the Thai painting, where the sinuous feminine figure, alluring in her own right, is not the tempter, but the ally of the Buddha. To me this suggests that, for men, feminine sexuality is not Mara per se--it only becomes Mara when it distracts us, when we become hung up on it. We can learn, however, like the Buddha in this image, to see beautiful young women not as temptations to be either seduced or resisted, but rather  as images of the sacred, as embodiments (no pun intended) of Gaia, one more reminder, in Blake's words, that "Everything that lives is holy." This is, perhaps, why the Buddha signifies his defeat of Mara by touching the Earth--reconnecting with the source of life.  May we all do likewise.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Of Malas, Mantras, and Meditation

Western Buddhists, like myself, are often a bit perplexed about what aspects of Buddhist practice to adopt as essential, as opposed to mere cultural trappings.  Most western Buddhists, for example, do not wear robes, carry begging bowls, or engage in practices such as repeated prostrations, for the simple reason that such seeming self-abasement, while common in Asian cultures, goes against the grain of the default western concepts of autonomous identity and self-respect with which we have been raised. So what is essential and what is incidental to practice? Everyone has an opinion on this, of course, and we are free to practice what we will.  But one practice I have found useful, while many of my friends are content to do without it, is to use a Mala in my formal meditation practice.

The Mala, the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist "rosary," consists of exactly 108 beads, which the practitioner uses as something like training wheels for meditation--to keep the mind on track, keep it from getting distracted by the ever-present random thoughts that arise unbidden to consciousness. The number 108 has any number of symbolic and numerological meanings, which you may, if you wish, read all about here.  108 is, for example, the product of 9 X 12, both numbers rich in numerological significance in cultures worldwide. Consider, for example, the 9 Dragons in Chinese mythology, as the number of perfection and power, or the 12 signs of the Zodiac--and so on.

There are, of course, many ways to use these beads; one of the most common is to use it for the repetition of a mantra. I confess, however, to a certain residual skepticism about mantra practice: if it is in Sanskrit, and you do not reflect upon the meaning, but simply believe in the magical efficacy of the Sanskrit words, what is the difference between this and other forms of magical thinking, such as the insistence, by the Catholic Church, that the Mass be conducted in Latin, or the Greek Orthodox use of a special form of Katharevousa Greek, used nowhere else, for their masses?

Christian mantras, of course, have their own baggage--whether "Hail Mary" or the Doxology, or "Kyrie Eleison," or the prayer of Jesus (i.e. "The Lord's Prayer, as commonly known). They all commit a person to one belief system, as do Muslim mantras like "Allahu Akbar..." Yet Jesus himself seemed very skeptical of mantras--he heaps scorn on those who "use vain repetitions" and make a public exhibition of their prayer.

That notwithstanding, I have no problem with those who enjoy chanting mantras, whether in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Tibetan, or whatever...the practice is harmless enough.  My own preference, however, is for my own language--English--simply because these are words I understand, and that therefore have no magical significance attached to them. They simply mean what they say--to me. This also seems more approachable for the vast majority of people who have no interest in appropriating a culture other than their own as an appendage to their identity.

Accordingly, I have come up with a mantra in my own (or anyone else's) native tongue, entirely unrelated to anyone's creed, yet fully compatible with anyone's spiritual practice. And this morning, I discovered a way of integrating this mantra with the magic number 108, so that one could practice it with a mala.  So I start with four basic injunctions--four verb phrases-- one for each full breath (and bead on the mala), which I then repeat three times over three larger, meta-injunctions, for a total of twelve breaths.

Here are the (easily memorized) core injunctions, on each breath:

  1. "Breathe"
  2. "Observe"
  3. "Let Go"
  4.  "Abide."
These reflect, of course, any number of sacred tetrads: the Four Brahmaviharas, or limitless qualities (Benevolence, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity);  the four stages of life (birth/childhood, youth, maturity, and old age/death); the four directions, four classical elements, or four seasons.  But then I repeat this series three times, on the following schema:


Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide.


Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, Abiding.


to Breathe, to Observe, to Let Go, to Abide.

Here is how it works.  When we contemplate these injunctions, we simply reflect on their value and importance, based on all we have read and been taught.  For example, we remind ourselves that breathing connects us to the Earth, the Sun, and all other life, and thus promotes benevolence and gratitude; that observing--just looking deeply, with gentleness, receptivity, and insight, at all around us and all the thoughts and feelings that flow through our minds, is a healthy alternative to getting caught up in them, either in attachment or in revulsion. And we remind ourselves that letting go of attachments and aversions will follow our observing them closely and recognizing their inherent emptiness and impermanence--and that this letting go brings a quiet joy; and that abiding--just being here now, without mental perturbations, empty of self-clinging, and at one with all, is the goal of our practice--whether we call this equanimity, alaya, samadhi, nirvana, or "the peace which passeth all understanding."

Having thus contemplated the value of these essential injunctions with each breath, we move to our second cycle, which is to practice them, letting go of all distractions in order to fully inhabit and experience our breathing, observing, letting go, and abiding. (This is why I use the participles--"breathing..." in this phase, after the imperative form--"breathe" which is more appropriate when contemplating the instructions of our teachers.)

Finally, while the first major injunction ("contemplate") connects us with our spiritual heritage and hence with the past--what our teachers have taught us--and the second ("practice") connects us to the present moment, the third major injunction ("vow") encourages us to renew our commitment to the practice in the future as well. We use the infinitive form ("to breathe") to emphasize this forward-looking aspect of a vow.

As with any mantra, if you simply repeat these words by rote, they will be useless.  Therefore, we should not "say" the words "contemplate, practice, vow" but rather embed them in our minds as behind-the-scenes injunctions for each four breaths in turn. And while we may begin by saying (aloud or to ourselves) the various forms of the core verbs "breathe, observe, let go, and abide" we should not get caught up in rote repetition here either. Rather, we can use these words as windows, to look through at what we are actually doing. And once we get the hang of it, we can drop these verbs as well and "just do it." (Training wheels, after all, are not intended to be permanent.)

If we repeat this sequence of 12 full breaths (4 X 3) nine times, we will have used up all the "magical" 108 beads on the mantra (4 X 3 X 9 = 108).  This is, in my experience, a half-hour well spent.