The following interview was conducted on email and completed 18 December 2020.
Secular Buddhist Network: In your 1998 book, the Compassionate Revolution: Radical Politics and Buddhism, you argued that consumerism and corporate capitalism are the result of what in Buddhism is traditionally known as the ‘three poisons’ – greed, hatred, and ignorance/delusion. Can you discuss this relationship? Have your views changed on this issue since 1998?
David Edwards: I now think it’s wrong to call them ‘the three poisons’, as if they were somehow terrifying, lethal and inhuman. We can’t experience and understand something deeply if we‘ve already decided it’s ‘poisonous’. It doesn’t help much even if Buddha tells me that greed, for example, is a ‘poison’ – I have to experience the electric thrill, uplifting promise, bewildering frustration and ultimate futility of seeking happiness in external ‘objects of desire’ for myself. Perhaps they should be called ‘the three feasts’, ‘the three must-tries’, or maybe ‘the three portals to wisdom’. As Stephen Batchelor says on the SBN website:
‘Experience life – acknowledge and deeply understand and embrace the human condition, especially its inevitable difficulties’
The corporate system is a form of institutionalised fanatical greed. Key insights were provided by Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan in his excellent book and film ‘The Corporation’. Bakan pointed out that, since the mid-1800s, corporations have been legally obliged to maximise profits for shareholders. He wrote of corporate executives:
‘The law forbids any motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizen. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people’s money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves – only as means to serve the corporations own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders.
‘Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal – at least when its genuine.’ (Bakan, ‘The Corporation’, Constable, 2004, p.37)
Institutionally, Bakan argued, corporations are in effect required to behave as psychopaths – profit must take precedence over all other human concerns. Love, compassion, generosity are all disallowed, expect as means to maximise profit.
This fundamentalist corporate greed requires the promotion of hatred and other delusions. The public has to be persuaded to hate and fear Official Enemies in countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria. Why? Economist Alan Greenspan – former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve – explained in his memoir:
‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.’ (Leader, ‘Power, not oil, Mr Greenspan,’ Sunday Times, 16 September 2007)
The corporate system also needs us to be ambitious, goal-oriented – we need to aim for ‘high-status’ corporate employment, products and services. Unfortunately, this fits well with the mind’s inherent preference for what it hasn’t got over what it has.
This manufacturing of ambition means that happiness is always postponed, off the agenda – we must sacrifice the present for the future; we must always keep moving, ‘advancing’. We call this pathology ‘progress’. We’ve relentlessly undermined our ability to live in and care for the present moment, and so the world that actually exists in the present – the animals, plants, climate stability – has started to fall apart.
SBN: You and David Cromwell created a website – Media Lens – in 2001 to examine critically, and from a radical perspective, the mainstream media’s coverage of key events. What do you see as the website’s most important accomplishments over the last 20 years?
DE: To give your readers an idea of what we do, in January 2003, senior Guardian reporter, Martin Woollacott, wrote of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction:
‘Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he [Saddam] is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.’ (Woollacott, ‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument’, Guardian, 24 January 2003)
So we emailed Woollacott and the Guardian editors, and encouraged our readers to do the same, asking why, if it was a ‘given’ that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter – who had been at the heart of the UN disarmament programme in Iraq from 1991-1998 – had said in 2002 that, by December 1998, Iraq had already been ‘fundamentally disarmed… of 90-95%’ of its weapons of mass destruction, leaving only ‘harmless sludge’. (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, ‘War On Iraq’, Profile Books, 2002, p.23)
Since we started in 2001, the internet has allowed an explosion of individuals and organisations like ours to subject corporate media to critical analysis. In 2001, pretty much the only way to express media dissent was via the letters pages of newspapers. Now, we can reach 60,000 followers on Twitter instantly, and send our media alerts (political analysis) and cogitations (spiritual analysis) to 20,000 subscribers on email.
There is now far greater public awareness among a significant section of the population of structural media bias, notably among younger people using the internet. The global anti-Iraq war protests, the global Extinction Rebellion climate protests, like the Occupation and Black Lives Matters movements, all grew out of internet activism. On the other hand, Brexit and Trump-style populism have been massively empowered by right-wing, web-based media. Large numbers of people, particularly older people, continue to rely on traditional corporate media and have little or no access to dissident critiques.
As for corporate media themselves, the more web-based criticism they’ve faced, the more defensive and closed they’ve become. It feels like we’re dealing with a kind of tyranny under siege – they can’t admit to the truth of their bias, so they’re having to retreat into a kind of fortress mentality. Where that ends I don’t know, but corporate media currently operate like the Green Zone in Baghdad – ostensibly serving the country, in fact they are controlling the country for the benefit of elite interests.
Our ‘business model’ is based on generosity. In 20 years, we’ve sent out around 4,500 pages of media alerts and cogitations, all free of charge. About once a year, we invite people to send us donations, if they think we’re worth supporting. The public support has been tremendous – enough for me to work full-time on Media Lens since 2002 and my co-editor David Cromwell since 2010. It’s wonderful to be completely free of parent companies, bosses, wealthy donors, advertisers, sponsors and so on – we rely solely on small donations from readers. We have written three books for Pluto Press – Guardians of Power (2006), Newspeak (2009) and Propaganda Blitz (2018).
On results, we try not to focus too much on what we may or my not have accomplished; it too easily becomes goal-orientation. Our focus is to ‘follow our bliss’, to write from the heart rather than from the head. Our goalless-goal is to stay rooted in the moment, so that we can continue to feel what it is we find most interesting, helpful and fun to write. We’ve noticed that the moment we start worrying about ‘targets’, ‘achievements’ and ‘results’, we shift from the juicy, loving, compassionate heart to the cold, ego-driven head writing robotically, lovelessly – it’s not that different from writing for money.
Anyone who has meditated will understand the reasoning: what are we trying to ‘achieve’ in meditation? Simply to observe and feel what’s there. When we start thinking about achievement – how consistently we are able to feel, uninterrupted by thought, and so on – we’re no longer feeling; meditating has been replaced by thinking.
SBN: You have raised concerns about Left progressives who lack compassion in their approach to political activism. Why is it so important that political activists be compassionate and aware of their feelings?
DE: In my view, ‘left activism’ would often be better termed ‘left inactivism’, or even ‘pro-establishment activism’. Why? This is my reasoning: when we meditatively watch, rather than follow, the promptings of desire, anxiety, sadness, jealousy, anger, and so on, something extraordinary happens: mental activity starts to subside. As mental activity subsides, a great joy arises from nowhere for no reason. It is bliss, unconditional love, compassion and great peace – nothing more is needed in the moment. This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven lies within.’ It’s what Kabir meant when he said:
‘Don’t go outside your house to see flowers, my friend, don’t bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals.’
It’s what Basho meant when he said:
‘Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
‘Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.
‘But this bliss can only be experienced through feeling, through the heart, in gaps between thoughts.’
But here’s the problem for left activism: while the bliss, love and compassion felt in our hearts is a kind of very subtle, divine music, the thinking mind – even the activist mind thinking ‘virtuous’ thoughts about peace, solidarity and justice – is a roaring engine that drowns out this subtle music. The world might be full of activists overflowing with ideas about love, compassion and injustice, but squeezing thousands of these thoughts will not produce a single drop of love or bliss. And a society without a single drop of love or bliss, however ‘just’, is a wasteland.
Because ’left activism’ is all about goal-oriented action – ‘fixing’ the world through thinking and doing – it has made a massive contribution to capitalist noise pollution drowning out the divine melody of the heart, and promoting egotism and antagonism. As Tolstoy said, ‘What is the point of a revolution, if our hearts remain the same?’
People trapped in their compulsively-thinking heads, insensitive to the subtle bliss of their hearts, are not in a position to ‘make the world a better place’ – they will bring their madness to whatever sanity they are trying to create. I believe a big reason we’re in the extraordinary mess we’re in is because ‘left activism’ is not, in fact, as imagined, a counter-force to goal-oriented, state-corporate capitalism – it is part of the same head-trapped, goal-oriented stance that blocks awareness of the inherent bliss and love of being. In other words, the supposed opposition to the madness of corporate capitalism is often one of its allies.
SBN: Considering your view that meditation and compassion are vitally important, how can meditation and Buddhism contribute to social change?
DE: The main focus should be on being, not doing; on learning to truly live and feel, rather than on changing things. We don’t need to make the world a better place, we need to be the world a better place. Because when we simply stop, when we deeply feel and perceive our emotions, perceptions and thoughts, we experience a bliss that renders the ego’s obsessions completely meaningless – we lose interest in them. This is the ultimate form of atomic social change – when individual experience of a higher internal, emotional, experiential happiness makes the ambition, success, wealth and acquisition that are destroying our world seem tawdry, pointless, a painful distraction from what really matters. When enough people experience this, change arises without generating resistance and opposition. It might sound impossible, but it is no more impossible than trying to change billions of human hearts through ‘action’. I say that as someone who has been deeply involved in political ‘action’ of various kinds for more than thirty years.
SBN: In terms of your own spiritual orientation, you have described yourself as being aligned with what you call ‘humanistic religion.’ How is that different from traditional religion? In what ways is Buddhism one of the trends within humanistic religion?
DE: Traditional religion is fatally tied up with power politics (Erich Fromm distinguished between ‘power religion’ and ‘humanistic religion’). Organised religion is often, not just a corruption and exploitation of the authentic human experience of enlightened individuals, it is the sworn, deeply threatened enemy of that experience. In my view, ‘humanistic religion’ must be rooted in learning from the experience of individuals, experience which of course is not found in organisations.
SBN: What aspects and/or teachings of Buddhism do you feel most connected to?
DE: ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ We have to become acutely sensitive to the truth of our experience. We have to generate sufficient sensitivity so that we can feel our inner bliss (everyone talks about ‘great thinkers’, when the real task is to feel). One of the great obstacles to succeeding in this is imitation – it’s so foolish to try to sit like Buddha, smile like Buddha, speak like Buddha (there was even a book, ‘What would Buddha do?’) and be ‘good’ like Buddha. We fail to increase our sensitivity because we forget that Buddha ultimately abandoned the effort to sit, or speak, or act like anyone else – he delved deeply into his own authentic being and experience.
It’s not helpful to be a copy, especially a ‘virtuous’ copy. It’s better to be authentically ‘bad’, ‘rotten’, ‘depraved’ – if we do that with awareness, we can come to see with clarity the real causes of misery and the real possibility of an inner joy that we had never even imagined. That’s impossible, if we base our lives on mere ideas in our heads disconnected from our own feeling.
The whole point, for me, is that Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist and Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Stop smiling if it’s a head-smile rather than a heart-smile! Stop helping old people across the road, if you’re doing it because you think it’s what you ‘should’ do! That means it’s coming from ego, which can feel deeply insulting to the people being helped. Be authentic – dig in the dirt to find the diamond of love and delight that is most certainly there. Don’t accept that this or that action is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ until you have discovered for yourself, from your own experience, that it really is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you. I take that to be the Buddha’s fundamental message.
SBN: What do you think of secular Buddhism?
DE: I admire the effort to challenge, and if necessary reject, the supernatural and/or irrational claims of religious tradition. As discussed above, slavishly following even purportedly divine individuals and traditions destroys our capacity to find truth within ourselves. We must free ourselves from all pressure to accept something as true on the say-so of religious ‘authority’. The ultimate religious authority is our own experience. I think the Western liberal tradition of critical, independent thought – as, for example, espoused by John Stuart Mill in his classic work, ‘On Liberty’, is a perfect fit for a vibrant, flourishing exploration of human experience inspired by Buddha’s teachings.
Having said that, the 17th and 18th century European ‘Age of Enlightenment’, and the modern world that grew out of it, has always been merely intellectual, head-trapped, with a disastrous lack of respect for feeling. It has also been relentlessly goal-oriented. Western secular spirituality should be primarily rooted in feeling, the heart. And the tremendous irony is that all goals are achieved when goal-orientation is dropped.