The world changed in the early morning of June 24, 2016.

I woke up in an airport hotel in Bordeaux. After a few hazy minutes I remembered that I should check for the result of the British referendum on European Union membership that had taken place the day before. I had little doubt that the result would be a fairly comfortable win for the “Remain” camp. The news headline stated: “Britain Votes to Leave.” I read this several times. The world had not changed at all. Everything was still in place exactly as it had been when I went to bed the night before. But my sense of the world had just undergone what felt like a seismic collapse. I recognized what had happened but could not begin to digest it. As I made my way to the airport, I felt a numb, sullen anger. I remember thinking, people without a university degree should not be allowed to vote. This was an odd thought: never having been to college, I would be one of the disenfranchised. Or perhaps not such an odd thought, as it disclosed the uncomfortable truth of my being part of a privileged establishment that I had spent much of my life holding in mild disdain.

The barista at the airport Starbucks asked for my name to scribble on the paper coffee cup. “Stefan,” I told her. I had never said this before. Something else was bubbling up now: the vote would deprive me of my European Union citizenship. As a resident in France who works throughout the continent, I would need to become a French national if I wished to travel and work freely. My life would be directly affected by Brexit, but since I had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years, I had been disqualified from voting in the referendum. The inability to have had any say in my future added to my sense of powerlessness and fueled my feelings of grievance and injustice.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Magnum

Looking out onto the bustling crowds of people from all over the country in London’s Kings Cross Station, I thought to myself: I am a foreigner here. I do not see the world in the way that many of these people must see it. The “Leave” campaign had been driven to no small extent by selfishness, fear, and hatred, which led to a misrepresentation of facts if not downright lying, and a climate of bellicose rhetoric that contributed to the murder of a member of Parliament. Standing on the platform, I found it difficult to identify with a country that had just democratically chosen to take such a path. Another image arose unbidden: that of a receding tide. I had come to adulthood on the wave of optimistic idealism that was the 1960s. I had enthusiastically identified with the struggles for freedom and rights that characterized the period. Like others of my generation, I was swept off to India on the momentum of these cultural changes. Now, after Brexit, I see that what drew me to the dharma was an unstated conviction that its philosophy, ethics, and practices would nurture such changes and carry them forward. Buddhism’s concern for all sentient beings—rather than just humans or certain kinds of humans—exerted a visceral, irresistible appeal. Now I fear that we have reached the point where the tide that went out in the ’60s has finally turned, and much of what has been gained will be left discarded as the sea retreats inland.

The referendum revealed that a majority of my fellow Britons had voted for rejecting others rather than welcoming them, for self-interest rather than altruism, for intolerance rather than tolerance, for me rather than you, for us rather than them. Even if the choice to leave Europe had been certain to increase the prosperity of the British Isles, I would (had I been able) still have voted to remain. To have done otherwise would have betrayed my deepest sense of what it means to be fully human. The world I aspire to live in is one with fewer borders, not more, greater acceptance of diversity, not less, and cooperation between peoples rather than suspicion and antagonism. These values also lie at the very heart of what the Buddha taught. I find all forms of nationalism, sexism, racism, and homophobia to be in direct conflict with the dharma. My heart sinks whenever I learn of Buddhist monks who encourage persecution of minorities, legitimize the waging of war, or refuse to grant women equal status with men.

Over the course of that weekend, as I spoke to groups of Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners in Cambridge and London, it felt as though I were addressing people in mourning. The turnout was noticeably lower than usual. For many, I suspect, the need to absorb the shock of Brexit took preference over listening to me waffle on about “Becoming Wholly Human.” Inevitably, the issue came up during the afternoon discussions. There might have been some in the audiences who had voted to leave the EU (a fact respectfully noted by each questioner), but I doubt it. Cambridge and London had voted overwhelmingly to remain. The prevailing mood was one of dismay, disbelief, and horror at what had just happened. Nobody expected me to answer their questions. They needed to give voice to how they felt, to share their confusion and turmoil in a sympathetic gathering.

Does it even make sense to ask what a Buddhist response to Brexit might be? Surely it would be sound advice to advocate being mindful and aware of what is arising within oneself and the world outside; recognizing but not succumbing to destructive emotions such as anger and fear; and of course, empathizing with and trying to understand those who think and feel differently from oneself. But none of this is a response to Brexit; it is a way of dealing with how I feel about Brexit. Such inner stillness, insight, and compassion might serve as a good basis on which to ultimately address the situation. Yet these mental states alone are incapable of leading to a decision about which particular course of action to pursue.

The Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi has written recently of a “great divide” that is opening up between the classical Buddhist traditions of Asia and an emerging secular Buddhism. As an advocate of a secular dharma, I locate the source of this great divide in a fundamental rethinking of the four noble truths. Instead of the dharma being founded on four truths that one needs first to believe in and then realize through direct insight, I take it to be rooted in four tasks that one needs first to recognize and then perform and master. In this way, Buddhism shifts from being a world religion built on a truth-based metaphysics into a spiritual culture built on a task-based ethics. The most important consequence of this move is that the attainment of nirvana (whether just for oneself or, for Mahayanists, after all others have achieved it) is no longer considered the goal of the practice. Instead, the goal is the cultivation of the eightfold path.

As long as nirvana is regarded as the final aim of Buddhist practice, it is hard to see how engagement with the world can be anything more than a means to a greater end. This, I suggest, is why Buddhist responses to issues such as Brexit tend to emphasize how to manage one’s feelings about them rather than to encourage a course of action. By noticing how feelings can give rise to greed, fear, opinionatedness, and other reactive patterns, you choose instead to remain mindfully aware of what is happening inside you. And since nirvana is defined as the ending of such reactivity, to dwell in mindfulness rather than give in to fear or anger becomes a foretaste of the final goal to which the eightfold path is said to lead.

There is no formula, Buddhist or otherwise, that can tell you what to do.

A secular Buddhist perspective turns this orthodoxy on its head. Here the purpose of such nirvanic moments of mindfulness is to create an ethical space from which to see, think, speak, act, and work in ways that are not conditioned by reactivity. Nirvana thus becomes the source or ground rather than the goal of the eightfold path. A responsive, nonreactive engagement with life becomes the primary concern of one’s practice. And when this practice is framed as a set of four interconnected tasks whose goal is a path that nurtures an ethical relationship with others, the notion of “engaged Buddhism” suddenly becomes redundant. In a secular model, engagement is no longer an option that needs to be flagged by the word “engaged.” It is built into the core of the dharma itself.

This approach makes me think of the Buddha’s parable of the raft. Here we have a man who finds himself on the bank of a wide river with neither a bridge nor a boat in sight. So he fashions a raft from whatever suitable materials he finds nearby and sets off across the water, paddling with his hands and feet. But when he gets to the other bank, instead of leaving the raft behind, he hoists it onto his shoulders and continues his journey encumbered by the load he is now carrying. Likewise, in growing familiar with the nonreactive taste of nirvana, one enters the stream of the path and becomes “independent of others” in one’s practice. “One goes about [one’s business in the world] having beheld the deathless [i.e., nirvana],” as the Numerical Discourses describe 21 merchants, officials, bankers, and doctors during the Buddha’s time. Once the path has become one’s own and thus an integral part of one’s life, there is no longer much point in lugging Buddhism around on your back. As the parable indicates, what has previously been liberating can become a burden.

There can be no Buddhist response to Brexit. There can only be my or your or our responses to Brexit that are uninflected by reactions of selfishness, attachment, fear, and hatred. Exactly what form these responses take and how they will play out in the world cannot be seen in advance. Yet respond I must. The challenge is this: to comprehend the conditions in which we now find ourselves, let go of the reactive habit patterns that rise up unbidden, ground oneself in the nonreactive space that opens up in their absence, and actualize a way of life that responds as effectively as possible to the suffering at hand.

Over the days and weeks that followed Brexit I would find myself happily attending to my routine duties, only to be suddenly interrupted by a sinking nausea in the pit of my stomach as I remembered anew that the calamity was still happening.

As a privileged, white middle-class adult, I will be among the last to suffer the consequences of Brexit. Those who suffer first and most will be the young, who will find themselves denied opportunities they otherwise would have had, as well as the many immigrants, refugees, and others who are already excluded, marginalized, and desperate. Who knows? Brexit might even turn out to be to my personal advantage. Another part of me is in denial. I still find it hard to believe that it will actually happen. Such is the bubble I live in that six months later I have yet to meet a single person who voted for it. Nor is Brexit a decision that can be overturned in four years’ time at the next presidential election. Brexit, so we are assured by our leaders, means Brexit. And Brexit, however it is defined, will affect me for the rest of my lifetime and have an impact on others that is likely to continue long after my death. 

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