William B. Turner
4 min readJan 7, 2021

I have been pondering for some time what, if anything, to write about Buddhism and politics.

Then came the riot of 2021.

We talked some time ago about the Engaged Buddhism of Thih Nhat Hanh, whom I and every thinking person hold in very high regard. I suspect I am more engaged than Hanh is because my immersion in Buddhism is significantly less than his, and I was far more engaged before becoming Buddhist than he was. The invasion of Vietnam was a huge, hideous mistake that cost Lyndon Johnson his political career, as it should have, but I have the luxury of noticing the good things Johnson did, such as get major civil rights legislation passed. I can’t criticize anyone from Vietnam who has trouble seeing any virtue in Johnson at all, although Hanh may be more charitable because he is Buddhist. I don’t know.

Politics is a conundrum for Buddhists. At its best, politics is the effort to improve everyone’s situation, and try to get everyone to cooperate, which Buddhists should applaud and contribute to. But the Buddha was very clear — it’s not going to get better on this side. The only improvement comes with complete awakening, which includes making the shift from seeing disappointment in human life to seeing disappointment as the defining characteristic of human life and inescapable except through awakening.

I have audaciously (absurdly?) articulated the project of awakening everyone, which no Buddhist teacher I know of has suggested, perhaps because they consider it impossible and pointless, I don’t know. It sort of is the point of the bodhisattva vow, but that gets articulated in nearly metaphysical terms, not so much in terms of practical politics. As someone said to me just before I took it, “it’s an *aspiration*, Bill.”

The problem is that most people are not Buddhist and saying out loud that it’s not going to get any better just seems cruel, no matter how true one may think the statement is. Saying that is certainly not good politics. Never in the United States, anyway, has any candidate run for office saying that they are not going to improve anything. Not a winning platform.

Good Buddhists may not lie. That is one of the precepts. But it is not a lie that Buddhists have found out the solution, which doesn’t sound at all political. Meditation, consistently, until you get there, is not very political. At least not in the doing of it. Some people enjoy meditation, alone or on retreats precisely because it takes them away from the daily concerns of the…