Buddhist Politics

As a lifelong Buddhist, I have often imagined the possibility of a robust, effective practice of Buddhist politics. I think there are some politicians who are Buddhist or who are sympathetic to a Buddhist world view, but if so, for the most part they are quiet about it. Even though Buddhism has been establishing itself in the Western world for more than seventy-five years, it would still be considered exotic by much of the ordinary voting public. To that point, I once went to a conference of encephalitis survivors, where a kindly, elderly woman from Ohio approached me after a talk I gave and said, “Is Buddhist like Muslim?” I replied no, it wasn’t, but that comment stuck with me. This was not long after 9/11; perhaps she thought I was a terrorist. If I were in politics I too would soft pedal any explicit Buddhist sympathies.
Back in the sixties Buddhist came into our society mostly through the counterculture, and the part of Buddhism we were mostly interested in was meditation, and the promise of spiritual transformation. Probably a lot of that had to do with the widespread use of psychedelics and other mind-altering substances. In the Buddhist community that gathered around my first Buddhist teacher, almost everyone in the group had tried LSD, and that influenced their understanding of “enlightenment,” which many of us imagined was something like a permanent LSD trip.
By now meditation is widely disseminated and accepted in the society. Buddhist practice has also had a major influence in at least three main societal spheres: hospice, psychotherapy, and prison work. Politics as yet is not one of them. That is regrettable, I think. I used to imagine that well-trained Buddhist practitioners could, for example, be included in negotiations of all kinds as a way of helping with conflict resolution, whether domestic or international. One early example was U Thant, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1960s. A Burmese national and a devout Buddhist, I was impressed when I read that he had a daily meditation practice. He helped President Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev negotiate the Cuban missile crisis. But U Thant is an exception.
Yes, meditation is an important part of Buddhism, but the reality is that throughout history, only a small minority of Buddhists—mostly monastic professionals—ever meditated. Buddhism is first and foremost a world view and philosophy of living, one based on ahimsa, which means non-harm or non-injury. Indeed, once when the world famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was asked to summarize Buddhism in one word, he simply said “Ahimsa.” If I could imagine a possible description of Buddhist politics, I would see it based on three principles. First is compassion for all living things, which includes ahimsa. The second would be interconnection, the sense that everything in the world, especially all living things, are dependent on each other; nothing stands alone. The third principle would be radical impermanence, the understanding that everything is changing all the time; there is no fixed or permanent aspect of human affairs.
These three principles—compassion, interconnection, and impermanence—to me could form the basis of a well-grounded approach to political life and action. These principles in our society would represent a radical shift for many, because many aspects of our society are based on their opposites—competition and aggression, separateness and rugged individuality, and resistance to change—qualities which at their worst represent a kind of toxic masculinity. Just to take one example: when Covid was raging, wearing a mask was clearly an act of compassion protecting others as well as yourself, but that’s not the way angry mask-deniers saw it. They saw it as an unjust infringement on their personal freedom; their rallying cry was, “Nobody can tell me what to do.” Some store employees got shot or killed for asking a customer to put on a mask. That’s a world view that is infinitely far removed from a Buddhist sensibility.
Nevertheless, in an arena of bitter conflict, or even war, I believe it is still possible to uphold the Buddhist way. Thich Nhat Hanh was a stellar example. In the midst of the Vietnam war, he traveled on foot from village to village, helping the injured, comforting the children, acting with kindness to everyone regardless of whose side they were on. At times there were attempts on his life. Actors from every side of that war thought that he must be somehow working for the other side; his kindness was viewed with fear and suspicion.
I don’t know if there is a place in our current maelstrom of political strife for a committed Buddhist like Thich Nhat Hanh. I would hope so. Only a world based on the Buddhist values of compassion, interconnection, and acceptance of change can help us find a way through our most compelling planet-wide challenges, such as climate change. For example, the most compelling fact about climate change is change. Yes, we all want things to stay the way they are, but change is happening all too rapidly, and no amount of digging our heels in with disinformation and out-and-out falsehood will stop it.
I knew Thich Nhat Hanh personally. When he visited our Buddhist center, for a couple of days I was his personal attendant. The two most striking things to know about him were that he talked very softly and walked very slowly. Later I marched with him and a million other people down Fifth Avenue demonstrating for nuclear disarmament. Thich Nhat Hanh had a spine of steel; he was ready to die for what he believed. When he did die a few years ago hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam lined the streets as his funeral procession went by. In his home country he was considered a saint.
I think we need people like that in our political sphere now, people who know what is real and true and what needs to be done. Our country and indeed the whole world depends on it. Will such people emerge? I am watching and waiting.


2 thoughts on “Buddhist Politics

  1. Hello Lewis –
    This is very well-explicated. Thank you.
    Some of us used to think that if only various world leaders would negotiate their positions around a bong – or something stronger, as you indicate – that might indeed lead to a breakthrough, the degree to which I also feel could be obtained by Buddhist – perhaps specifically Tibetan – “protocols.”

  2. What is Buddhism? I am not asking this question in order to enter into sterile argumentations, but nevertheless, what is Buddhism? Or even Better, what is Zen? We now have Zen shoes, Zen candles, Zen bathrooms, etc. As a funny anecdote, just a few minutes before I had my ‘recent’ heart surgery, the doctor told me that I should try to be ‘Zen’ during the surgery; I told him that if I were to be Zen, then I would surely die. (As one aspect of this Zen is a digging; digging its own grave, which I did not told him).

    Ask 1,000 people what this Zen or Buddhism is and you might get up to 1,000 different answers. If we wish to efficiently communicate with each other we ‘have’ to share a minimum of common use/meaning for words, I call this a relative optimum, but how can we achieve this ‘goal’? One of the persistent misunderstandings, is that we tend to think that words have meaning, they don’t, they have uses, and what we call meaning is simply the dominant use we have for that word. And so the question becomes what does the word Buddhism is telling ‘me’, what does this word evoke in me? What does the word Zen or ‘consciousness’ means to you and me?

    Words have a ‘center’ which we may call the dominant use or meaning, and alternative uses or meanings gravitates around this center, struggling to erode (or to escape away from) this dominance, take poetry for example. We never share the exact same use or meaning (education, experiences, memories, etc.), when not too far away, we can understand each other, but when the core or dominant use is or has collapse, then everything goes, alternative uses have won the game. When this dominant use is no more, what we have is plurality of uses; we then fight each other because we don’t share similar use/meaning, having lost sight of the core meaning (dominant use). This is what is happening with words such as Zen and Buddhism or even consciousness; everything goes, for the center (core meaning) has collapse.

    I have been ‘intensely’ practicing Zen meditation for almost 30 years, read innumerable amount of books on both Zen and Buddhism and still quite fortunately cannot ‘pin down’ the true/core meaning of those words. But I do know what they are not from within; a pair of shoe, a bathroom, a perfume, etc. From without, they may be all of those and I can have a good laugh at those as I go take a leak in my brand new Zen bathroom, but from within (after having practicing/meditating for so many years) all pluralities of what it is or is not, have simply dissolved within my own awareness, and thus all conflicting ‘views’ have entirely melted away as they never really were any right view to begin with.(Right views acts as ‘illusory’ more or less useful orienting centers, giving us a sense of a where to go to and how to go to, kind of a cognitive GPS). And so from without, Zen, Buddhism may appear to be such and such, but from within, the story it tells me is quite a different matter, as it is a no-story to tell. But not quite the end of that story either.
    We are constantly trying/struggling/fighting to establish a dominant more or less stable (right) view/meaning from without; maybe that is part of the ‘problem’?

    From without, they have meaning(s), from within, they are meaningless, to complicate things furthermore, both have equal value and validity.

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