Suella Braverman is the UK’s Home Secretary—one of the four most senior members of Britain’s Conservative government and perhaps the most right-wing. She has made her name by demanding the hardest version of Brexit, speaking out against “political correctness” in the justice system, and projecting a tough anti-immigration stance—for example, making plans to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda in Africa to have their applications processed. She is ethnically Indian by birth, an outspoken member of the Conservative’s Brexiteer wing, and touted as a possible future party leader. She’s also a Buddhist by conviction—in fact, she’s a member of my own Buddhist sangha, the Triratna Buddhist Community.
Braverman’s politics could hardly be further from my own, which are the usual leftish-greenish mix that most people expect Buddhists to hold in Western countries. Her meteoric rise through British politics has made me question my assumptions about how Buddhists should regard politics—the need to tolerate others’ viewpoints and the importance of holding one’s own beliefs lightly. But her enthusiastic engagement in the culture wars has also helped me clarify the limits of that tolerance.
I’ve met Braverman only once, in 2015, when she was a new MP, not long after she had become the first Member of Parliament to swear the traditional Oath of Allegiance on a copy of The Dhammapada. I didn’t know much about her politics, and we spoke mainly about the challenge of staying connected to her Buddhist aspirations amid the pressures of political life. I found her charming, intelligent, and evidently sincere in her Buddhist practice. Some years before, she had become a mitra (meaning “friend”) at Triratna’s London Buddhist Centre, and at one stage, she asked to join the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I’m a member. Ordination is a much bigger commitment, and, though she later withdrew her request, doing so showed her seriousness.
I was pleased to see a fellow Buddhist in a position of influence and with the potential to have much more. Politics is inherently tricky, and getting to the top of the political pile will never be ethically straightforward. It’s also a way to make a difference to the world. I wished Braverman well. I knew that she probably found herself out of step, politically, with many of her Buddhist peers in settings like Triratna study groups, and I admired her for sticking around.
Braverman rose to prominence during the debates around Brexit—the UK’s decision to leave the European Union—as an ally of Boris Johnson. After the 2016 referendum came an acrimonious process of deciding how Brexit should be implemented, and she emerged as a leader of the no-compromise “hard Brexit” faction in the British Parliament. Her group eventually won, Johnson became Prime Minister, and in January 2020, he made her Attorney General. Her Triratna affiliation caused a PR problem at this point, as reporting of Triratna tends to focus on our founder’s sexual activity in the 1970s and ’80s, but Braverman’s connection with Buddhism never really landed. When Johnson resigned in a haze of scandals, she ran to succeed him, and the eventual winner, Liz Truss, made her Home Secretary, with responsibility for immigration and policing. Picking her way through the political chaos, Braverman survived Truss’s rapid downfall and remains a leading member of Rishi Sunak’s government.
Watching the rise of this “Buddhist Conservative” made me think more deeply about what tolerance means in a political context. I don’t buy the idea that Buddhists should necessarily skew left. The Buddha wasn’t a Democrat, and he may not even have been a democrat: his teachings just aren’t about that. And does it really matter? Anyone who follows the bodhisattva path, as I try to, undertakes to share Buddhist teachings with all beings, not just the left-wing ones; and if a Conservative like Braverman responds, do we really expect them to adopt liberalism along with the dharma? A liberal bias is common among Western convert Buddhists (though there are exceptions, including my own Buddhist teacher), but Buddhists from Asian immigrant communities are often at the conservative end of the political spectrum, and Buddhist countries divide politically just as Western countries do.
But being tolerant doesn’t mean you stop thinking critically, and Braverman’s politics is hard for someone like me to accommodate. She opposed compromise with the EU to reach a trade agreement after Brexit; she is seeking the toughest ways to deter the refugees who travel to the UK across the Channel in small boats, including the flights to Rwanda; she opposes the agreement that offers a solution to Northern Ireland’s problematic status post-Brexit; she wants the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights; and she demands that teachers don’t “pander” to trans pupils.
If Buddhism means anything at all in a political arena, it should at least make a difference to how politics is conducted.
I don’t agree with any of these policies, but that political disagreement is, mainly, a political matter, not one that’s central to Buddhism and its teachings. I think she’s entitled to her views, that conservatives can be Buddhists, and that religious organizations shouldn’t police their members’ politics. But if Buddhism means anything at all in a political arena, it should at least make a difference to how politics is conducted. Here my problem with Braverman is more fundamental, and to explain what I mean I need to suggest the principles I think should guide Buddhists who want to engage politically.
The day I met Braverman I was in the UK Parliament for the launch of Mindful Nation UK, a parliamentary report I’d helped edit, which proposed that mindfulness practice should be supported by government, especially in the areas of Education, Health, Criminal Justice and the Workplace. If that sounds fanciful, the report was issued by a group of MPs, the Minister for Education spoke at the launch, and much progress has since been made. I’ve continued to advocate for mindfulness in this way, particularly in Wales, where I live. I don’t think mindfulness is a panacea for the world’s troubles, and I recognize the criticisms that some Buddhists make of the mindfulness movement. All the same, I think it can help, if we do it well and with integrity. For me, it’s an example of what Buddhists can contribute to society as Buddhists, drawing on our experience of Buddhist practice.
Another influence has been the “Thought for the Day” talks I’ve done for seventeen years at prime time on the main BBC breakfast radio news program, commenting on current affairs from a Buddhist perspective (around ten talks a year). In this slot, I can’t take sides politically, and that has made me look for nonpartisan and clearly Buddhist responses to events. The most resonant starting points include compassion, nonviolence, and an understanding of the centrality of the mind. I also think the Buddhist teachings on conditionality imply a concern for the long-term implications of our actions and a rounded, holistic perspective to our challenges that chimes with environmental concerns. In areas like these, the connection to Buddhist principles seems clear, and I feel confident in advocating them, along with mindfulness, in public spaces.
This isn’t a Buddhist political platform. Even if Buddhists could agree that principles like these should underpin a Buddhist view of culture and politics, it doesn’t follow that we will arrive at the same political conclusions. Buddhist teachings are typically expressed in universal terms, and translating them into politics involves a long chain of reasoning, at every point of which we make interpretations. As Buddhist psychology tells us, these interpretations are influenced by our past, preferences, allegiances, and a host of other subjective, emotionally loaded factors.
The Buddha taught that beliefs and opinions are important constituents of the fixed sense of self that both gives us a feeling of security but also causes us to suffer. He says in the Brahmajala Sutta, his magisterial analysis of ‘views,’ that even the most impressive-sounding beliefs at root are expressions of ‘the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.’ Practicing Buddhism should therefore mean questioning our views about things like politics. I notice in myself an impulse to believe that what I think is correct, simply because it’s what I think, and I try to recognize how that feeling shuts down my curiosity and stops me listening.
There are degrees of rigidity in how we hold our beliefs, and some beliefs seem to have rigidity baked in—that would be my definition of an “ideology.” Rigid ideological beliefs grow from emotions like frustration and fear, and reinforce the same emotions by filtering our perceptions. Buddhist teachings tell us that the craving and aversion have always produced differing subjective realities, but the filter bubbles and echo chambers of our fragmented news and social media supercharge the process. The more insecure and defensive we feel, the more tightly we cling to our beliefs and the more estranged we feel from those who disagree with us. The result—in the words of the Buddha in the Madhupindika Sutta, is “taking up rods and bladed weapons, arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing and false speech.”
Europeans look in horror at America’s cultural warfare and its fragmenting impact. The UK’s version is relatively mild by comparison, and we don’t have overtly racist political parties as some European countries do. But the Brexit process was deeply polarizing, and the wounds are still open. It’s obvious to liberals like me when these forces are at work on the conservative right, but escaping what the Buddha called the “morass,” or “thicket,” or “net” of views means something other than picking sides in the fight. We need to examine our own views (liberal in my case) for signs of our own ideological rigidity.
The Buddhist ethical guidelines I follow include four “speech precepts” (or “paths of action”) dating back to the Buddha, which tell me to avoid communicating in ways that are false, unkind, unhelpful, and foster disharmony; instead, our words should be true, kind, helpful, and harmonious. If we communicate in a skillful way, we will think accordingly and find a healthy relationship with the world.
The last of the speech precepts, addressing harmonious and disharmonious speech, is particularly relevant to politics. On the evidence of the Discourses (the ancient scriptures that are ascribed to the historical Buddha himself), this was important from the earliest phase of Buddhist history. The Brahmajala Sutta tells us that the Buddha was known to his contemporaries as “a reconciler of those who are divided and a promoter of friendships,” and spoke only in ways that were conducive to concord. According to the Madhupindika Sutta, when the Buddha was asked to describe his teaching, he simply said it was “the type of doctrine where one doesn’t quarrel with anyone else.” The Kosambiya Sutta tells us that when a conflict broke out between monastic factions, the Buddha advised the quarreling parties to treat each other with kindness and to examine their beliefs, asking whether they were conducive to calm or if they stoked the dispute. And in the Kalaha-vivada Sutta, he says that “Quarrels and disputes come from what we hold dear, as do lamentation and sorrow, stinginess, conceit and arrogance.”
This didn’t mean that the Buddha believed all views had equal merit. He clearly thought his teaching was superior to others, and he says in the Maha-sihanada Sutta, that in declaring it he “claimed the bull’s place and roared his lion’s roar in the assemblies.” Before we take this as an invitation to act like a bull or a lion on our own assemblies, we should notice that all he claims for the content of his speech is that he “understands the possible as possible, and the impossible as impossible.” He was a pragmatist and wary of abstractions, let alone dogma and ideology.
Taken together, the four speech precepts challenge the assumption that our speech is justified if we think it’s true. It also needs to be kind, helpful, and conducive to harmony. That means considering whether what we say or write will bring people together or drive them apart. In politics, when we say that a message “fires up the base,” what we really mean is that it affirms certain emotions and encourages people to identify with a particular view of the world, regardless of whether it’s based in reality. That applies whether the base is on the left or the right, and it’s relevant to left-wing rhetoric that’s fueled by anger, if that overwhelms our capacity to listen to our opponents.
This brings us back to Suella Braverman, who takes strongly right-wing positions on every issue and speaks accordingly. She castigates her opponents for allowing fashionable beliefs to distort their understanding—in one memorable and much-derided outburst, this Buddhist vegetarian disparaged her Labour Party opponents as “the tofu-eating wokerati.” While some members of my Buddhist community are environmental activists, Braverman has led a government crackdown on disruptive protesters. She is happy to use emotive language about complex, racially charged subjects where strong feelings lie just below the surface—for example, describing the current wave of illegal immigration to the UK as “an invasion.” All this has made her a hate figure for many on the left, but she told the Times she doesn’t mind. “If I get trolled on Twitter I know I’m doing the right thing. Twitter is a sewer of left-wing bile.” Perhaps that’s understandable, but even some Conservatives are alarmed, and former Conservative cochair Sayeeda Warsi accuses Braverman of “racist rhetoric” and turning “almost every issue into a cultural race war.”
Personally, I don’t think Braverman is a racist. She sees herself as a clear-minded, outspoken straight-talker who tells hard truths that liberals can’t stomach and thinks that tough, decisive action on areas like immigration is the only way to cut through seemingly intractable problems. But none of this dampens my disappointment in Braverman as a Buddhist politician because, while I’m not questioning the sincerity of her Buddhism, it’s very hard to detect any Buddhist difference in the way she does politics. She is positioning herself as a conservative leader in the British culture wars —and what I see is someone throwing fuel on the fire when I think we should be dousing the flames.
No doubt, it’s unrealistic to ask a mainstream politician to live up to the high standards of the Buddhist scriptures—politicians have responsibilities to their party and voters and need to cut through the political clamor. In that sense, politics may be an impossible field for anyone who wants to live fully in accord with Buddhism. At the same time, for better or worse, it is also the realm in which a certain kind of highly consequential change is made. Can Buddhists afford not to engage?
The question is how they do so. For all the pressures, politicians constantly make choices in how they speak and position themselves. If Buddhists do involve themselves in politics, or politicians become Buddhists, as Braverman has, they will make a Buddhist difference only by making those choices in the light of Buddhist values and ethical precepts. None are more important than the guidance on how to communicate.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.