“I’m Sorry, I’m a Buddhist, I Don’t Do Politics”

Us and the world.

Us and the world.

Many of us think we live in the world with an enemy. Here in the United States, our government knows this and capitalizes on it. Washington and the U.S. media have worked very hard to make all of us U.S. citizens afraid of not just the world – but also of one another. A nebulous war against a vague enemy – an ideology, really – makes us nervous and dependent on the government for our protection. On the flip side, we are the best nation on Earth and I, as an individual American, can be an Army of One, a successful accountant, a famous actor, a millionaire, the President. I will endure, I will survive in perpetuum.

This culture of puffed-up egos and radical individualism is the stage on which Buddhism in the U.S. must perform. In the last 45 years, Buddhism has attempted to provide U.S. citizens with an alternative, post-modern way to see ourselves in relation with the world, touting interdependence and selflessness and compassion. It would seem, with these ideals, that the stage has been set for Buddhism to radically transform our modernist views and provide a foundation upon which a new cultural view can be built. Yet, by and large, Buddhism has not done so.

While other mainstream religious traditions rally quite publicly around political policies (such as abortion and same-sex marriage), set up soup kitchens, and open hospitals, Buddhism for the most part continues to maintain a largely individualistic, self-help appearance in the U.S. Two exceptions in the U.S. are noted in the organization Tzu Chi and the Zen Master Bernie Glassman, although neither focuses on changing public policy. Why is this? Is Buddhism even relevant to the shaping of social equity policy? Is Buddhism compatible with political movements, able to assist such groups as the Occupy Movement? I believe the answer to both of these questions is yes.

 The lack of Buddhism’s success in these areas has less to do with what Buddhism itself has to offer but, rather, is impingent upon the typical U.S. Buddhist’s ability to both embrace the teachings of the Buddha and ensconce themselves in socially engaged political movements. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that individualism and the world it has created are simply unsustainable. For Ken Jones, Buddhist social activist, the only reasonable thing to do is to call for an “authentic postmodernity”.

What would an “authentic postmodernity” look like? Daniel Goleman, author of The Meditative Mind, attempts to describe it: “Being able to put aside one’s self-centered focus and impulses has social benefits: it opens the way to empathy, to real listening, to taking another person’s perspective.” The stumbling block, however, is perhaps the average “convert Buddhist” in the U.S. David Loy, Zen Buddhist scholar, speaks of a collective “wego” that is comprised of U.S. Buddhists who are largely unaware of, and indifferent to, what is going on in the rest of the world. Such a Buddhist may say:

My home has all the modern conveniences, my family and I have great medical care, I have a yoga studio membership, my husband and I attend Buddhist retreats, my kids have local relatives and day care to watch after them, I have a nice job that enables me to stop by and pick up my daily latté on the way to the office, which I arrive at in my modern car with GPS and bum-warming seats. Life is good! Now, what was it that you wanted me to get involved in? Oh, I’m sorry, I’m a Buddhist, I don’t do politics.

Perhaps I am being a bit unfairly glib. And perhaps not. It seems to me that U.S. Buddhists – at least those converts from an Abrahamic faith who are financially stable and Caucasian – are a little too comfortable in their individual Buddhisms. Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has this to say:

The problem is…that in a culture like ours, already steeped in the philosophy of ‘You do your own thing and I’ll do mine’, the lofty Buddhist idea of nonattachment can hardly escape distortion. Westerners will not be able to practice the oriental posture of nonattachment until they move not just beyond attachments but also beyond an ‘I’ which does ‘my thing’. Real nonattachment will become possible only when self slips away, too. But this is something most Westerners either cannot or will not concede.

I couldn’t agree more.

University of Kent Religious Department Chair Jeremy Carrette advises that it is precisely this self-centered egocentricity that we must diligently work to overcome as Buddhists. New Age philosophies that most U.S. citizens see Buddhism coming under emphasize cultivating the self, whereas the Buddhist traditions offer many teachings to help us overcome our “individual” self. According to Carrette, “The Buddhist tradition can only be described as a ‘religion of the self’ if we mean by this that its central preoccupation has been the eradication of one’s … autonomous self.”

Consider, as an example, the following excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem Please Call My by My True Names:

I am the mayfly
metamorphosing on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-hear-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
and I am the man
who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are but one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

In this day and age, and particularly in modern-day, commonly-practiced politics, there is a need for a spirituality that constantly implores us to deeply explore the nature of the self – which Jones calls “the actual mover and shaker of events.” In the U.S., where our dualistic separation between God and man supports modernity’s individualism, a non-dualistic spirituality like Buddhism can provide us U.S. citizens with a different view – if we are willing to accept it, if we are willing to imbue our lives with it. Rather than assuming there is a separation between us and other, that there is an “in here” and an “out there”, we Buddhists who take Buddhism beyond its New Age Self Helpism believe that there is an undivided presence, called buddhanature, that is accessible through meditation. Connecting with the buddhanature that is ours and others’ helps us to overcome this dualistic, modernistic idea that we are separate and individual. As John Donne, a 16th-century challenger of modernity, wrote, “No man is an iland [sic].” It is believed that, according to Ken Jones, “The embodiment of such a nondualistic consciousness… in the context of modernity implies the ultimate political and economic radicalism.”

In the 1970s an Australian Aborigine activist group said this: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” In a culture where liberation comes in a gym membership and a beautiful wedding gown one or two sizes smaller than you are today, Buddhism faces a great challenge. Luckily, not all U.S. citizens are buying into the American Dream party line; this is the information age, and with the invention of the Internet the United States is producing a culture of youth who are disillusioned and requesting something new. What they are increasingly asking for – and not only the youth – is a new, social organization built upon a postmodern view of communalism, decentralization, egolessness and interdependence. Fortunately for Buddhism, these views echo Buddhist ideals and philosophies.

While it is true that Buddhism, by and large and particularly in the well-to-do Caucasian communities, manifests in the U.S. as a New Age form of self-help, this is due to the U.S. culture of material spiritualism and is not a shortcoming of Buddhism itself. When Buddhism is not stripped of its “postmodernist” views (which, coincidentally, arose in a pre-modern world) by capitalistic consumerism, Buddhism becomes remarkably relevant to radical political movements such as Occupy. In fact, it is seeming more and more likely that, with the formation of groups such as Protest Chaplains, Buddhism and social reform movements can coarise, coemerge, and exist together like yin and yang: Buddhism existing within activism, activism existing within Buddhism. As a remarkably relevant spirituality to social reform – a reform that would see radical individualism give way to radical inclusivism and collectivism – Daniel Goleman’s wish for a world open to real empathy and compassion can be realized. For a 2,500 year-old religion, Buddhism still has some kick in these here boots and may be more relevant to social reform in the U.S. than ever before – and it all depends on us.

Post by Akasa Skye.

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7 thoughts on ““I’m Sorry, I’m a Buddhist, I Don’t Do Politics”

  1. It’s an interesting thesis. I see your points, but would challenge you, as i have in the past, to look at it from a different angle. The cunning warrior attacks the heart, not the mind. The problem with linking Buddhism to social activism is that it turns Buddhism into the bull in a bullfight: angry, chasing the red cape(that is, trying to quickly end the injustice through laws or social activism), and being faked out by the matador (that is, the group who has power) and eventually killed (the social activist becomes so weary that eventually, the fight about the issue loses meaning without being resolved). It’s a vicious cycle.

    There is a different way. It is slower, granted. But by changing the culture in gentle ways first, rather than running around like a bull in a wine bar, by the time you want the laws/issue to change, you don’t even have to fight to get it done. This takes generations. It is thinking strategically, rather than tactically. And it is a better way for Buddhism to go about making changes.

    Take the Buddha’s talking to members of other castes, or including women. You didn’t see him leading protest rallies in Rajagaha, demanding equal treatment for women. You didn’t see him engaging in angry, raucous sit-ins to bring to light the plight of Outcasts. But, you did see him open the path to women, and to help them set up the bhikkhuni sangha. And you did see Ananda asking for water from an Outcast woman without concern for her caste. Gently this was done, and given the culture of the time, it had some success and meaning.

    In a modern setting, this could involve not Occupy movements or protest marches, but sitcoms and movies and other forms of pop culture that slowly, over a few generations if done right, can do more good than a billion man march on Washington. Slowly and gently change minds through changing hearts.

    That’s the better way of going about it. Of course, if Buddhist bulls would rather chase the matador’s cape (and on occasion gore the powerful matador while not actually changing conditions), there is nothing stopping them from doing so.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey Chris!

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I would challenge you back (even though I think your original challenge was to Monica)! If there is a thought that there is only one way for Buddhism to enter and engage the world, then we are lost. Your approach is a valid one, obviously, as it is a very common response of Buddhism to the social ills of the United States. I would also challenge you to remember the relationship between Buddhism and political action in Asia, particularly in relation to the political acts of Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa, whom – I would argue – vocally called out the political leaders of their times in quite direct ways. The Dalai Lama also has made policy (inasmuch as the CTA makes “policy”) for the Tibetan people regarding how to respond to today’s Chinese oppression – and at the same time, he teaches universal compassion and loving-kindness toward your enemy. As well, the Buddha stepped into the middle of a conflict between two warring tribes and brought women into the sangha – an act that he knew would be socially challenging. I have never seen the Buddha as anything other than a compassionate rebel against the status quo; as such, I think there is room in Buddhism for both the approach that you suggest as well as the approach suggested in this blog. I believe that the more varied ways Buddhism can show up in society, the more beneficial we can be to sentient beings.

    There is a deeper issue, however, that you did not address. The question myself and Jane (our professor) has is this: why does Buddhism get watered down once it crosses the border into the United States? One “why” of that is one that I point out in this paper. In so doing, I am challenging the individuals who use Buddhism as a self-help tool to expand their view and open up their embrace of Buddhist teachings to include all sentient beings – which is no less than what the Buddha requested of us. So I don’t want the politics of the situation to overshadow the important issue that many Buddhist in the US build up individual Buddhisms that actually restrict the teachings rather than expand them.

    Akasa 🙂

  3. akasaskye says:

    Here is an interesting article that some might find relevant to this blog and even inspiring! http://shambhalatimes.org/2013/01/14/community-lose-the-lids/

  4. Challenge accepted. Outside of a few notable examples, much of the Buddhist world (especially in those countries where Buddhism is a decided presence, politically) tend to be very strongly conservative in nature, and all but opposed to the type of Occupy-style protests being advocated here (New Komeito Party ring any bells? How are women’s rights doing on the ground in Cambodia?). We can’t deny the presence of knowledgable, trained, and devoted Buddhists in what our Western liberal friends would describe as . We would do well to accept that Buddhism is not and can not be defined by one political ideology or another, and to deliberately eschew the extremes (both on the Occupy side and the Tea Party side) to seek out the Middle Path. They both have their good points, and are intrinsically valuable and often correct, but neither side has a monopoly on the correct path or right view or compassion.

    In the same way, neither side has a monopoly on idiots, or a monopoly on bad judgments, or a monopoly on wrong views and ideas. Latching on to one side or the other is tantamount to moral surrender, and just as when a monk is defeated because he fails to uphold the training, adhering to one political ideology or view is the same as admitting defeat by failing to uphold equanimity on the one hand, and failure to dissociate from views on the other. Of course, there are other opinions, and there will be some degree of validity in each of those views, which I accept and encourage.

    As for Buddhism getting watered down…you could argue it is commercialism, or post-modern social collapse, or other such things. I think it boils down to the fundamental and chronic spiritual, moral, and intellectual laziness that is just plain rampant in the human condition. Life is unsatisfactory. Why? Because as humans we’re too lazy to want to work at it, and thus we find ever more clever ways to do less and expect more. We are almost never satisfied with the effort itself, and thus we suffer from the very cognitive dissonance we create by our basic failure to enjoy effort, and end up demonizing it ans seeking ways to lessen the effort and still produce results.

    If John Q. Public can get enlightenment from something that doesn’t require constant striving and intellectual “elbow grease”, then the choice is simple, if intellectually lacking. When presented with a very clever way to minimize the work needed to seek enlightenment, very few are going to deliberately choose the harder path of their own accord. They’ll take the watered down, Mini-Zen-Garden-in-a-Box-I-Bought-for-Stress-Relief approach over, you know…actual practice. Because that might take work (mental, spiritual, or otherwise). And as beings who are often spiritually lazy and indolent, that’s an evil you just don’t breach. But that’s just my take on it.

  5. That half sentence in the first paragraph should be finished as follows: profoundly conservative movements who view the world in profoundly different ways.

  6. He Who is Dom says:

    Another reason why Americans may shift their faith to Buddhism has to do with an aversion to religion and an affection for spirituality. Here in NYC American Buddhist centers aren’t so organized in our efforts (or as large) as more religious institutions. Religious organizations are bound together by purpose informed by presumptive beliefs. In fact, their attachment to beliefs may be precisely the reason why many Americans prefer Buddha’s call to be “a light unto oneself.” The belief that my liberation is tied to someone else’ is not universally shared by all Buddhist traditions. It also strikes me as something similar to the Christian belief that by doing good, one will be rewarded with a life after death in heaven. That proximity may repel Americans who prefer to seek guidance in the dharma, in the eight-fold path. Personally, I don’t have any faith in institutionalized altruism but express my compassion as an individual intent on reducing suffering. For who? For everyone.

  7. An admittedly late addition to the discussion. I think it is important to add that, in the United States at least, the rank afforded by race, socioeconomic status, and other factors of a number of Buddhists gives them greater agency and therefore greater responsibility and accountability to act. Power and resources are distributed asymmetrically, so the magnitude of action by the oppressed (at least individually) is significantly less than the magnitude of action take by those with rank who, like it or not, participate in structural oppression. If those with power do not act on behalf of those without power, I do not believe that is neutral. The middle way is not necessarily some arithmetical division between two poles. When Robert Thurman co-locates with the oppressed, I believe he is engaging in Buddhist practice. He is trying to help people see things-as-it-is. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, observing activitists, has admitted he is thinking that prayer and meditation may not be enough. The Buddha’s previous lives tell tales of radical love and self-sacrifice. The Buddha took on the debts of others. There are significant divisions between Buddhist groups based on socioeconomic status and location. The popularity of Buddhism in some of the most oppressed and predominately African American urban areas suggests that there are many people in these areas who have only a little bit of dust in their eyes. I would argue that their suffering is the karmic debt of others with more agency. More agency brings more responsibility and accountability. Inaction justified by an interpretation of the teachings is, from the perspective of the oppressed, dualism. This dualism is evident in the lack of interaction between Buddhists of different socioeconomic statuses. It is evident in the lack of sangha interaction. It is evident in the attendance of retreats and classes. It underestimates the power of the many to work together to change causes and conditions. This is as good a reason as any to believe that the next incarnation of the Buddha will be not individual but in the form of a community. Because non-dual community is a lesson Buddhism still seems to lack in its emphasis on individual enlightenment. Countless are sentient beings. I vow to liberate them all. Yet, the third gem of the sangha seems our most underdeveloped (in contrast to countless books on the dharma). I think that says a lot. Buddhism is not about thinking. It is about doing. Chop wood. Carry water. Those with power need to help chop wood and carry water. To offer another perspective on Buddhism. Metta.

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