How should American Buddhists respond to the election of Donald Trump?

We’ve seen some divergent opinions in the last three weeks. Several well-meaning teachers have said that the election only reaffirms the dharma’s timeless insights into suffering and its capacity to offer refuge in difficult times. (I made that same argument before the election.) Some have, less skillfully, basically told people to try to relax.

And some, most eloquently Pablo Das, have essentially said “don’t tell me to relax—I’m in danger, my friends are in danger, and now is not the time to retreat.”

Everyone is right and everyone is wrong here—including Norman Fischer, who gracefully apologized for his initial reaction, written in the shock of the election result. What is interesting is how we’re right and wrong at the same time.

One reason everyone is right is that if you go looking for “what Buddhism says,” you’ll find any answer you like. For example, in my Theravadan tradition there are countless statements by the Buddha and others that the “affairs of kings and princes” is not a fitting subject for noble conversation. And monastic traditions in general are about withdrawing from aspects of the political world, even if the values of service and compassion persist on a microscale. If you want to justify a “wider view” approach, you’ll find plenty of proof texts and established teachers to back you up.

On the other hand, two millennia of institutional Buddhism also saw plenty of monastics and lay leaders heavily involved in politics—including the Theravadan monks in Burma who helped bring about that country’s recent political revolution. Indeed, if we look at the life of Buddhism historically, rather than scripturally, surely this is the predominant trend: the temporal power of Tibetan lamas, the imperial jockeying of Japanese Zen priests, you name it.

And of course, more recently, “Engaged Buddhists” in both Asia and the West have understood the dharma as demanding direct service work and political activism. 

But there’s another, more subtle reason why you’ll find dharma practitioners on both sides of this debate: because it is actually a profound question of the meaning of dharma practice itself.

It’s clear that one of the benefits of practice is that it offers a respite from the insanity of 21st century life, both in terms of calm and insight. We build oases of calm, and we refine our insight into the fundamental aspects of our experience. From the perspective of emptiness, suffering, and dependent origination, indeed “this changes nothing” in the punning words of Craig Hase. What did you expect? This is samsara. Or, if you prefer, this is emptiness arising within primordial awareness. That is the deep truth.

On the other hand, most Western Buddhists are basically tantric in their understanding of the dharma, by which I mean that we see the world as the arena for practice. As David McMahan showed so persuasively in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Asian innovators and their Western students reinterpreted core Buddhist concepts to adapt them to 20th and now 21st-century life. Teaching laypeople practices like meditation that were formerly reserved for monastics only, for example, required a change in how the practice of meditation is to be understood: not as detaching from samsara, but as recognizing interconnection with all beings; not as renunciation in the traditional sense, but as promoting more skillful engagement with family members, business colleagues, and political causes. These were changes made at specific historical moments, by specific people, for specific reasons.

Again, this isn’t new; Buddhist emperors were also quite “engaged.” But the Western dharma also tends to honor, rather than reject, the emotional vicissitudes of the human experience. For example: is anger always bad? The Buddha said so, in the Tripitaka. But particularly in Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, the answer is more complex. There’s a famous Zen tale of an enlightened master who hears that his son has died and cries. The master’s students ask why the master is crying. “Because I am sad,” he replies.

In other words, with the right view, sadness and anger arise as empty/full phenomena, both real and unreal, and enlightened people both experience and see through it. Sometimes anger is appropriate, as when vulnerable lives are in danger.

Like Pablo Das, I’m a queer Buddhist teacher. And when a straight colleague recently told me that my political writing is too angry and that I’m a bad practitioner for expressing it, and that I should be cultivating compassion for the white working class that voted against their economic interests and for their racist ones, I had the same response Pablo had: basically, f you. As I wrote in one of those angry political columns, when someone’s boot is on your neck, it may not be the time for understanding and compassion.

According to some people, anyway.

I think we need what Bertolt Brecht called “complex seeing.” On the one hand, yes, we should indeed see Trump’s election as another empty phenomenon rolling on, and as the expression of the timeless truth of dukkha. And yet, simultaneously, we have to also experience the pain and reality of the suffering that is to come. Brecht did this in his plays by setting heartbreaking stories within the context of theatrical devices that at once distanced and engaged the audience. I think practice is similar.

Or, to choose another unhappy European, consider Nietzsche’s distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. Ultimately, dharma-wise, there’s no one suffering, no self to do the suffering, nothing but emptiness. But conventionally, of course, the first noble truth is that there is suffering, and that it matters, and it matters to respond to it.

At the very least, we can’t be selectively tantric, holding on to lovely homes and beloved spouses but suddenly becoming “wise” when the news is bad. Nor can we forget our own positions; the threats I face as a white cisgender man (albeit queer, Jewish, and a journalist) are far less acute than those faced by a Muslim or trans person or undocumented immigrant or young woman on a college campus. I literally cannot understand what they are going through, and cannot presume to judge or manage their reactions. My role is to listen and learn from them—especially since I’m the type of white dude who tends to dominate conversations.

That’s how I’m doing it, anyway. I’m writing, protesting, doing my best, devoting several hours every day to resistance on the platforms I have. And when I do so, I’m pulling out all the stops, fighting fire with (verbal) fire when it seems helpful to do so. Skillful means. When wielding an axe, wield an axe. Emptiness and fierceness.

And yet, temporary renunciation is indeed a blessing. Take refuge in the dharma when you’re hurting; gain perspective; expand your capacity for empathy; uncover the biases you carry within yourself; and also see all arisings as empty. And then, see with complexity, and hold both conventional and ultimate truths in your heart.

Just after the election, I taught a jhana concentration retreat, helping my students leave the insane world behind for a few days and cultivate a focused mind. I think that’s good for liberation, obviously, and it was definitely good for my own sense of balance. But it’s also good for justice. We’re better activists when we’re not burned out, and when we can see as clearly as possible.

And when we get off the cushion and fight.

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