“Meetings” – Small Is Beautiful – But Is It Buddhist?
1976: I was working essentially full time, for the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, but was on a freelance basis. Paid by the published article, I was seriously poor.
Yet I was not unhappy with my lot: the Bay Guardian was a journalistic legend; the editors respected my work and kept wanting more. I’d been meaning to demand a regular gig, but had been too busy.
My “beat” was the offbeat, story ideas outside the paper’s weekly regimen of muckraking about politics and other public corruptions, all plentiful in the region.
Instead I wrote the stories readers wanted but no one else had thought of:
— a major profile of Rabbi Emil Bronner, creator of a famous brand of peppermint oil soap. It was sold in bottles wrapped with big blue labels covered by tiny white print detailing the “All-One-God-Faith” religion, which he had likewise invented. (The tiny print made perfect sense if you were stoned enough.) I also did one of the first major pieces about the home birth movement, which was growing fast in the area; pardon the pun.
And when E. F. Schumacher, the guru of the “Small Is Beautiful” movement, came to town, I was also on his trail. He was greeted like a rock star by second-wave hippies, who jammed a series of college auditoriums with their long hair, bright headbands, well-thumbed Whole Earth Catalogs, and wafting herbal vapors. They were ecstatic; but I was stalking him, waiting to spring a trap.
These gatherings were deeply incongruous: Schumacher was German-English, with a garbled accent. He was also in his sixties, white-haired, conventionally dressed, reasonably witty but the utter walking opposite of cool. His talks were more like lectures, centered on what he called “Buddhist Economics.” But the crowds roared as if he was Mick Jagger rocking out about “Brown Sugar.” I shook my head at them again and again, feeling old at 33.
There was another, even more incongruous aspect of his stardom, then unknown, but about to be exposed, by me. That was because I had actually read his million-copy bestseller – and read even more closely its numerous footnotes.
Deep in the small print, I had discovered a striking anomaly: many more citations of old papal social encyclicals than Buddhist scriptures; and numerous others to Anglo-Catholic writers G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, and their mostly imaginary ideology of “Distributism,” an early 20th century, proto-back-to-the-land scheme. Amid all the international hullabaloo over Schumacher’s book, and all his talk of Eastern-influenced “appropriate technology,” no one else seemed to have noticed its solid European, Catholic basis.
But I had. I dug it all out, followed up with the sources (remember, this was pre-Google), and was ready to confront him. Which I finally did, in a brief interview in an East Bay motel after watching another college crowd cheering and clapping and jumping out of their seats to get a glimpse of their hero.
I wasted no time in laying out my evidence, then put the gotcha question: “Dr. Schumacher, wouldn’t it have been more accurate, or, well, honest to have called your program ‘Christian,’ or even Catholic economics?”
The old man stared at me for a moment. Was he going to call me a liar? Throw me out? Bring on some BS Buddhist bafflegab?
No. He threw his head back, and laughed. Guffawed til his white hair shook.
“Of course, you’re right,” he admitted.
Then he shrugged. “But if I had called it ‘Christian Economics,’ nobody would have paid any attention.” He knew his audience.
I turned in my story two days later, with the heading: “Exposed: E. F. Schumacher Is A Vatican Agent.” Today, if you read any biographical sketches of Schumacher, his Catholicism is in there; no big deal. But in 1976, my story was a certified scoop.
The Bay Guardian’s readers ate it up.
This is an excerpt from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography. The book is available here, and on Amazon.