Buddhism as Cultural Dissent

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The Buddha

The culture of the United States is pretty amazing. We have produced impressive examples of literature, visual art, philosophy, and music. We have created several new styles of music: the blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

But, as we have seen with the election of Donald Trump, our culture yet harbors some elements that are as ugly as humans can get.

From the Buddhist perspective, the answer may well be that this is just the plight of humans. Life is full of disappointments, and the culture you live in must be a primary source of those disappointments, since dependent origination is the rule of the universe — this arises because of that, and culture is always the given for humans.

But the Buddha did not say we should all just give up. Aspiring to change all humans is no less outlandish than the bodhisattva pledge, to postpone one’s own enlightenment until all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. One could argue that they are the same goal.

About all the Buddha had to spread his words was his own voice, supplemented by a growing legion of converts. He had no magazines, newsletters, web sites, television, none of that. But he spent his entire life after his awakening teaching and he established a tradition that persists now, over 2,000 years later.

In some sense, the people of the United States are very idealistic. A stirring statement of high ideals got us started as a new nation. There were enormous problems with the implementation of those ideals. The man who wrote the statement of stirring ideals owned slaves and the entire enterprise took place on land that had once belonged to people who had lived on it for thousands of years before the invading Christians showed up.

We can see Buddhism as a set of ideals that can help redeem the failures of our original idealists. Buddhism is radically egalitarian. Everyone has buddha nature, full stop. Even Donald Trump has buddha nature, although he is about as far away from realizing it as a human can get, apparently.

So perhaps the best option is to use the high ideals of the nation in terms of freedom of religion and of expression to bruit, in our Buddhist way, the Buddhist option for organizing a better, more compassionate society.

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Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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