From Her Body Sprang Our Greatest Wealth, Part 1

Posted by – August 17, 2015
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Guest Post Health & Healing Society & Politics Spirituality & Religion

Guest post by Thanissara

In our latest Sacred Activism title, Time to Stand Up, author Thanissara calls readers to action in the fight against anthropogenic climate change and other social, economic, and environmental ills. Contrary to what some may believe, Buddhism and activism go hand in hand; here, in her two-part guest post, Thanissara explains the interconnectedness of all things, and how it’s being tarnished by the legacies of corporatization, slavery, and colonization, the vast implications of which continue to play out even centuries later.

A recent article by writer Tom Engelhardt, “Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country,” offers a diagnosis of our post 9/11 world.[1] He names five areas that constitute a world shaped by the “New American Order”:

  • 1 percent elections, the privatization of the state, a fourth branch of government, and the demobilization of “We the People”
  • The privatization of the state
  • The de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency
  • The rise of the national security state as the fourth branch of government
  • The demobilization of the American people (taking the power and teeth out of popular dissent in the guise of protection from “terrorism”)

In his summary, “The Birth of a New System,” he argues that we should find a name for our new political system—one shaped by five Supreme Court justices in 2010, when Citizens United legalized a government by millionaires, billionaires, and corporations.”[2] A report released in January 2015 by Oxfam, “Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More,” records the current flow of wealth, predicting the top 1 percent will have more wealth than the remaining 99 percent of people in just two years.[3] I would call such a system a feudalistic, corporate plutocracy.

An unethical and unregulated billionaire corporate power is now the overarching influence on the destiny of most nations, peoples, species, and the earth itself. In the face of this, we are losing the struggle to reverse the collapse of a sustainable world, and to protect life from being a means for profit only. To unravel the inequities of our current economic system, which is based on the privilege of inherited wealth[4], we have to go back in history to see that the astonishing rise of capital wealth within Europe, from the late-fifteenth to nineteenth century, was rooted in the African slave trade, alongside rapacious colonization of lands rich with spices, minerals, gold, and all manner of tradable goods. Contemporary African American artist Nona Faustine has found a way to awaken our collective amnesia by standing naked in Wall Street, New York, in ill-fitting white shoes.[5] Faustine comments on her art activism, “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth”: “Standing at the exact spot where they sold Native and African men, women, and children 150 years ago… I found myself at the curtain of time between two eras, past and present. I went into a deep reflection.”[6]

To reflect on the roots of our American Euro-centric privilege is truly sobering. By the conclusion of four hundred years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Europeans and Americans had enslaved and transported more than 12 million Africans to the Americas and the West Indies.[7] The grand stately homes dotted across Europe and the sweeping plantations, estates, and magnificent city buildings across America are, brick by brick, constructed from immense exploitation of Africa, Asia, and First Nation People. Tracing back the roots of our current economic system to the oppression and servitude of people of color, and semi-indentured working classes, helps us understand an ingrained mindset that justifies the acquisition of wealth through deeply corrupt means. This mindset employs the extreme objectification of the “other,” as so different from us that it is perfectly acceptable to deny rights, and exploit to the full extent, including subjugation through murder and extreme violence.

British novelist Barry Unsworth captures this act of distancing in his novel Sacred Hunger, which is focused around the slave trade, “Picturing things is bad for business… it can choke the mind with horror if persisted in. We have graphs and tables and balance sheets and statements of corporate philosophy to help us remain busily and safely in the realm of the abstract and comfort us with a sense of lawful endeavor and lawful profit. And we have maps.”[8] Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History[9], comments, “Unsworth describes a ‘violence of abstraction'[10] that plagued the study of the slave trade from its beginning. It is as if the use of ledgers, almanacs, balance sheets, graphs, and tables—the merchants’ comforting methods—has rendered abstract, and thereby dehumanized, a reality that must, for moral and political reasons, be understood concretely. Numbers can occlude the pervasive torture and terror, but European, African, and American societies still live with their consequences, the multiple legacies of race, class, and slavery. The slaver is a ghost ship sailing on the edges of modern consciousness.”

The “ghostly slave ship” still sails the depths of our corporate driven economy and its increasingly militarized “law” enforcement strategies, which now include murder of black citizens with impunity. Capitalism, unmoored from any ethical ground, and from any allegiance to land, people or nation state, has gone completely rogue; these days, there is little restraining its increasingly extreme practices. The “violence of abstraction” continues its ghastly ritual in the daily toil of millions who are dispensable cogs in the factory machinery of “outsourcing” where unregulated companies exploit workers in China, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, South America, and increasingly in the Western worlds, creating a new semi-slave economy.

The use of everyday items, including computers, iPads, and smart phones, are directly linked to a global culture of colonization, servitude, and an extreme lack of environmental responsibility. Every time we use a mobile phone, we handle “conflict minerals,” states Frank Piasecki Poulsen in his report from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where “children are regularly used to work the mines, and the profits continue to fuel a silent, and rarely mentioned war that is the ‘bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.’”[11] The minerals are then shipped to China to be processed for our everyday use. Xu Lizhi, a 24-year-old migrant worker from Shenzhen, committed suicide on September 30, 2014 by jumping out of a window at Apple’s mega factory Foxconn. This is his poem:

I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into this disgraceful poem [12]

The language of poetry and personal narrative colors in the names, faces, and stories of the “ghostly ships” that are the cogs within our profit-making machine. In doing so, they move us from abstraction into shared human sensibility. It is empathetic attunement to the “other,” rather than the “violence of abstraction,” that initiates a journey of reassessment regarding the systems we inhabit. Empathetic resonance is vital, as it shifts us toward a more equitable world that moves beyond self-concern to an awareness of interconnection. Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics said, “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of matter.”[13] We are beginning to understand the implications of what Buddha taught 2,600 years ago, summed up by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” There is no ultimate separation between “self” and “other.” Insight into the seamless nature of reality is an essential catalyst for evolving from a species driven by greed, fear, and violence, to one that understands that harming “other” ultimately harms “self.” In reality we are truly interwoven together within a unified field of awareness.

Quantum theory, in accordance with Buddhist philosophy, implies that there is no exact, static objective reality. Instead all phenomena arise within our awareness. When we don’t see the co-arising seamless dynamic of subject-object, which both arise in relationship to each other, then our subjective experience becomes defined by the gain and loss of “objects,” or people, events, things, and possessions. The primary focus of Buddhist practice is to alleviate the experience of the suffering that comes from dualistic consciousness, which distorts this deeper reality, through insight into the true nature of mind as pure, unconditioned, “conscious-awareness-knowing.” Dogen Zenji expressed this insight when he said, “enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” When we feel the natural interconnection of all things, we notice and experience the deeper love that moves through sentient life.

Read Part 2

1. Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country? by Tom Engelhardt.
2. A Call to Arms by Fred Wertheimer.
3. Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More by Oxfam.
4. Thomas Piketty’s Capital: everything you need to know about the surprise bestseller by Paul Mason.
5. White Shoes series by Nona Faustine.
6. Artist’s Nude Self-Portraits Explore Former Sites Of Slavery Throughout New York by Priscilla Frank.
7. How Many Slaves Landed in the US? by Henry Gates, Jr.
8. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.
9. The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker.
10. The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism by Derek Sayer.
11. Children of the Congo who risk their lives to supply our mobile phones by Frank Poulsen.
12. The poetry and brief life of a Foxconn worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014).
13. Das Wesen der Materie (The Nature of Matter), 1944 speech by Max Planck in Florence, Italy.

Time to Stand Up by Thanissara book cover


Thanissara and her husband Kittisaro (Harry Randolph Weinberg) are the founders of Dharmagiri Hermitage in South Africa, from where they support several HIV/AIDS Outreach Programs and help guide and fundraise for Kulungile Care Center for orphaned and vulnerable children and teenagers. They have taught meditation internationally in Europe, the US, Canada, South Africa, and Israel for over 25 years. Thanissara grew up in an extended Anglo-Irish family in London, attending Southampton College of Art and traveling extensively in Asia in the 1970s. Also inspired by Ajahn Chah, she spent twelve years as a Buddhist nun in Thailand. She holds an MA in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy Practice from Middlesex University and the Karuna Institute in the UK and co-facilitates the Community Dharma Leader Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.

Tags: Buddhism Climate Change Poetry Sacred Activism Social Change Thanissara
About the Author

Bevin is the associate comms director at North Atlantic Books.