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Is a Free Market Compatible with Spirituality?

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/21; June 21, 2001.]

Bernie Silver
San Jose Business Journal - OPINION
From the June 18, 2001.

I was one of the thousands who trekked up to Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View recently to catch Tenzin Gyatsu, otherwise known as the 14th Dalai Lama. His Holiness was in the valley to deliver five days' worth of talks on Buddhist philosophy in general and the "wisdom of the heart" in particular. I attended a 90-minute Saturday evening session billed as a public talk. I was joined by about 18,999 other people. The event was sold out.

The question is why.

The Dalai Lama is not one of your usual rockers whose dulcet tones bounce off the roofs of Shoreline's neighbors. Nor is he a high lama of technology; in fact, he confesses to being computer-illiterate. And if that's not enough to tarnish his appeal to the valley, he spends most of his waking moments promoting kindness and compassion, upon which there doesn't seem to be a great deal of emphasis in this neck of the woods.

So what's up with the hordes at Shoreline?

Well, it could be the Dalai Lama's growing celebrity that attracted so many to his ruminations. He's written best-selling books, and a number of Hollywood celebs have joined one of his favorite causes: freeing his native Tibet from the Chinese, who have been occupying the country since 1950.

But that's surely not it, because it begs the question of why this bespectacled, saffron-robed, bland-looking man's books have sold so well, and why there's such interest in Tibet, given that lots of countries have been occupied by totalitarian regimes throughout history with nary a peep from most people.

The answer, I believe, lies not in the stars, but in the fact that man--and woman--do not live by bread alone, or by their heads alone, even in Silicon Valley, where the brain is an object of veneration.

As so many in the fast-track valley have discovered, you can work for just so long for just so many hours and for just so much money before you begin to wonder if that's all there is. And, if you're lucky, you discover that, no, it isn't. There are all the things the sages throughout the ages have suggested: kindness, compassion, generosity, gentleness, friendship and love.

Some lump these qualities under the general rubric of spirituality.

Call them what you will, people seem to have a need for them, perhaps even a craving. Or perhaps craving is what head-tripping Silicon Valley has for them.

But this is not about painting the valley as the big, bad wolf and Tibet as the virtuous hero. It is about taking advantage of the Dalai Lama's recent presence to explore a conundrum, or at least what for me is a conundrum.

Silicon Valley could justifiably be considered the epitome of the free market, of which I am a great admirer. No market in this country is unfettered, and lord knows California fetters business as best it can, but relatively speaking, the market here is unconstrained. As a result it produces an enormous amount of goods and services, and enjoys, even during its more sluggish times, an incredibly high standard of living.

Tibet, on the other hand, as with many countries in the eastern part of the world, has a poor, centrally planned, agrarian economy. Most of its citizens are peasants. Of course, the country's economic condition has been exacerbated by the oppressive--brutal, actually--Chinese occupation, but even before the colonialists came on the scene most people in the country had eked out but a meager living. The Dalai Lama, while in exile in India (where he has been ensconced since 1959), has said when Tibet is free again it will transform itself into a democracy, and the people will be able to choose the kind of government--and economy--they want.

Be that as it may, today the United States delivers the goods, while Tibet delivers the spirit. Before the Chinese started terrorizing them, as far as I can tell Tibetans were relatively stress- and tension-free, and they were reputed to be a kind and gentle people. The United States, and certainly Silicon Valley, is not stress- and tension-free, and kind and gentle are almost anomalous.

So what's the message? Poverty nurtures the spirit while prosperity throttles it? I don't think so. What if we substitute "simplicity" for poverty? Maybe.

Some people believe you can have both prosperity and spirituality through the welfare state, under which there's just enough free market to produce the goods, and just enough government control to distribute them "justly." But from what I have observed of such benevolent states, the controls they impose sap the drive of entrepreneurs and the distribution system they erect creates warring factions eager for an ever greater amount of the goods and services they themselves didn't produce.

No, I'll take the free market, which not only generates prosperity but recognizes individual rights, a concept for which I happen to have a high regard.

But that doesn't mean a free society is problem-free. The trick, as I see it, is to integrate free-market economics and spirituality--no mean feat. Once you get a head of steam on to make money, you can easily forget to be kind, to be gentle, to be decent.

More and more Westerners, searching for a way out of the conundrum, are turning to Eastern philosophy, such as that of the Dalai Lama.

And that may be just the ticket.

Silver is managing editor of the San Jose Business Journal. He can be reached at bsilver@bizjournals.com

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