Buddhism and Politics

by joel on November 2, 2010

Post image for Buddhism and Politics

So How is a Buddhist to Respond to all the Vehement Position-taking in this Political Atmosphere?

I must admit that this Buddhist is full of positions and reactivity. When Fox news comes to mind, I recoil with some measure of disgust, distrust, anger, disappointment, loathing, and hopelessness. As I see it, these guys are full of hate and ignorance. I “validate” this by my reaction being so full of hate, and by the agreement of so many of my friends. This leads nowhere.

I have a friend (I’d say he’s almost a Buddhist) who has exactly the same responses when president Obama comes to his mind. So, we can argue about who is “right,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever been moved to change my heart (emotions) about something because of an argument about VIEWS. What changes me is a different CONNECTION TO OTHERS – not an abstract connection, but a whole-body (heart/mind) sense of the situation as immediately lived, not just thought. Change requires love, friendliness.

Our opinions and the positions we take are all grounded not in “the way it is” but in “the way we are.” We see the world as we are, not as it is. So does everyone else. This is what in Buddhism is called “attachment” – especially attachment to ME and MY WAY OF BEING. But is there a way out of this? Should we, perhaps give up our opinions and positions? It is unlikely that we can actually do this. For example, we can develop new tastes, but we can’t get rid of hunger. And if we could, we would be wiping out some very important connections to the way we all are – separating ourselves from others, rather than connecting. A world without positions and opinions would be unreal. (And one of my summations of Buddhism is “be real!”)
The problem isn’t that we take positions and have opinions. The problem is that we actually believe that the way we see the world is not a limited position, but is the standpoint of truth. Whatever appears to us to be “the world is necessarily partial. We need other views, and even opposition, to become a bit closer to “how it is” both on the level of the issue and on the level of our being human together in the world of positionality. That doesn’t mean I should stop seeing the world the way it appears now, to me, or that I should stop you from seeing the world the way you do.

Byron Katie, a master of cutting through reality-clogging bullshit, teaches us to ask some very useful questions when we are vehemently holding to an opinion about something or someone, such as “She’s a jerk!” Byron Katie asks, “Is it true?” “Can you KNOW that it is true?” “Would it be better for her to change?” “Can you KNOW that it would be better for her to change?” Take some time with these questions – they seem simple enough, but they take time to go deep.

These helpful questions take us to a place of “not-knowing.” Seung Sahn, a great Zen teacher, taught not-knows as his major practice: Only Don’t Know. From a Buddhist point of view, not-knowing isn’t a replacement for self-centered opinions and positions (as if there could be such a thing) but is a way of discovering what is deeper than holding to positions.

Sakya Pandita (13th century Tibet), taught “Parting from the four attachments:”

When you are attached to this world and this life,
you cannot practice the Way.

When you are attached to habitual patterns,
you are not free.

When you are attached to your own well-being,
you lack the precious heart of awakening.

When you are attached to ideas, opinions, and a point of view,
You cannot see how things are.

So, as Buddhists, we need not give up even strong opinions and positions – but we do have to give up attachment to them. Not being attached to them is to abandon the idea that because I think or believe something, it is true. And abandon the idea that the opinions of others are somehow lacking just because they are another’s idea, not mine. This makes commitment to growing, evolving truth more important than opinions and positions. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

This is the Buddhist way, too. Having a conviction, opinion, position, is inevitable. Holding to it carries no great virtue. Virtue is, while having a position, being open and even inviting challenges. That has the additional virtue of being a form of loving one’s enemy.

The Dalai Lama has many Buddhist opinions. But even he says that, should scientific findings contradict a Buddhist view or popular position, he would change – and Buddhism itself would have to change.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: