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 world.
But meditation can have a political effect, at the population level, or it could.
So, earlier today, news reports were full of stories about protesters who broke into the Capitol and disrupted the joint session of Congress that was counting the votes for president and vice president in the Electoral College. This really was a unique event in the history of the United States. Lots of protest movements have taken to Washington, D.C. to make their grievances known. In the early 21st century, the march on Washington is now a set piece of our politics.
The supporters of the outgoing president were the first such group ever to break into the Capitol to disrupt the business of Congress. Certainly, also, this was the first time any group has tried to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes, which is usually a very brief, boring affair that most people know nothing about.
I doubt any of the rioters were Buddhists. But for those of us following the action from a distance, the riots still present a problem. Buddhist meditation induces calm, which is a good thing. It was possible to watch the events unfold from a distance and not get too excited. It is sad that a woman died from her participation in the riot. It is sad that so many people are willing to accumulate the bad karma that comes from engaging in acts of violence. But, following the Dalai Lama, since I can’t do anything about it, I also choose not to worry too much about any of it.
The more subtle problem is that watching riots is an open invitation to reinforce your sense of yourself as a self, a self who is not rioting and is therefore better than the people who are rioting. Not rioting is certainly the better choice, but patting yourself (!) on the back for it is not a good idea.
And perhaps the key way in which meditation is not political is that politics, as long as any significant number of people is not fully awakened, is likely to provoke people to join up into groups, more or less oppositional, which is a recipe for clinging to individual identities as members of groups, which is exactly the opposite of the point of meditation.
So politics puts Buddhists in a bind between the compassionate impulse to help other people and the desire to avoid reinforcing our individual identities. There is no easy answer. Whatever we do, we should hold our opinions lightly and refrain from demonizing people who disagree.
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