June 25, 2017 Sermon


These days, I feel like I am regularly contributing to Jeff Bezos’ plan to take over the
world. Just last week, I ordered twenty units of styrofoam from Amazon for the temple.
Jeff Bezos, as you know, is the CEO of Amazon. He has recently taken steps to conquer
what could possibly be the final frontier of consumer retail. Amazon has bought ailing
Whole Foods for 13.7 billion dollars in cash. Perhaps, Bezos is thinking about taking on the
responsibility of feeding the 795 million people who are starving around the world? But,
by all accounts, I do not think so. We can be sure that the reason Bezos bought Whole
Foods is to learn about, and then revolutionize the marketing experience by streamlining
it. We would never have to walk to the supermarket to do our grocery shopping even if
there is one a few blocks away, simply because it will be cheaper to order it from Amazon
than to make a trip to your local grocer.

But, imagine that Bezos has already managed to drive your local supermarket into
bankruptcy. What would I need to do to get a hold of five tomatoes to make some
spaghetti tonight? What do I do? First of all, I would need internet access. Anyone
without internet access can forget about eating. I order the five tomatoes that I need, and
it will probably arrive without issues as long as the drones, which by that time will be
littering the skies, do not crash into each other. Say that the tomatoes are delivered, but
one of them is rotten. Knowing Bezos, there will be a no-questions-asked return policy.
But, I will need to get back online to exchange that one bad tomato. Most people would
give up at this point. Where can I find a surrogate at Amazon that would be as finicky as I
am about my fruits and vegetables? Well, you are left without choices, because Amazon’s
business model cuts out the human element and thrives on speed and efficiency. The only
thing that consumers can rely on will be the comments left online by people who have
bought the groceries before you. Whereas, at the old local supermarket, you could rely on
grabbing the attention of someone to ask for some help.

I just wanted to explore what one might expect from a true Bezos experience. I am not
advocating bringing back old times. That would be impossible. Doing things online is the
wave of the future, and it can neither be stopped or overturned. Yet, I wonder whether it
is fun for somebody like Bezos to own or control everything? I do wish that people
understand that we are living, breathing organisms, whether we are people, animals, birds,
fish, insects, or plants. We live in a subtle social system that can be tipped out of balance
easily. Each entity has a space that should be respected. Similarly, each industry should
be allowed to flourish. I have no doubt that Bezos can modernize the grocery industry. He
has done it with everything else. Amazon, by itself, has wrought fear in behemoth brick-
and-mortar retail outlets like Walmart. The only thing that one can do to stop the
rampage is to defer to Bezos’ conscience.

There is a Buddhist term, enryo, which has become an everyday word in Japan. Usually,
enryo is used to mean, “to hold back”. This harkens back to something chivalrous, as
giving up your seat on the bus to an elderly person or a pregnant women, or showing the
courtesy of allowing someone to enter a room before you. In Japan, giving up the better
one to offer to someone else and taking the lesser one of two is the noble thing to do. This
would be an example of enryo. In Buddhism, we believe that we are “allowed” to live in
this world. And, as such, we need to respect those around us as well as our environment.
That is, our existence is dependent upon others. And, many times, if you do not respect
this space or relationship, problems will befall you. Displacing a whole industry will leave
you with many unemployed people who are disgruntled, for example. Dinosaurs and
extinction is a topic that deserves discussion in and of itself. But here, my only reason to
take up Bezos’ issue is to use it to explain another more important concept in Buddhism—
that of hoben or expedients.

Returning to the matter of Jeff Bezos, think about what the Buddha would say to Mr.
Bezos. I think that the Buddha would ask him, “What is the point of conquering yet
another industry if you already own everything else?” As unrivaled and confident as Bezos
is, he seems to be lost in his own quagmire in that there seems to be no end to his
ambition. For most everyone aside from Mr. Bezos, one could expect that the Buddha
would most likely encourage them to reach for the stars and push one’s potential. The
standard advice to someone who is graduating from high school is to set lofty dreams and
to keep working hard to attain them. But, to someone like Bezos who has reached
fantastic goals many times over, and is now encroaching upon others with no merit but to
gain greater profits, the Buddha would advise such a person to slow down and pursue a
higher good, such as philanthropy. The separate advice that the Buddha would give to
high school graduates and to Bezos are in fact both examples of hoben or expedients, but
on different ends of a spectrum. For someone just starting out, it is normal to keep
encourage them to never let up. In the case of someone who is accomplished as Bezos is,
further ambition could hurt himself and others to such a degree that there are only
negative gains. True wisdom, in both cases, is to know what is enough. Hoben, then, is a
step toward the truth, and not the truth itself. Hoben is true as it refers to certain people
under certain conditions in order that such persons would be guided toward the truth.

(Eisei Ikenaga)