As we go to press with our first anniversary issue, our late-night efforts have been interspersed with televised reports from the Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden, just ten blocks from our office. The last four-day event at the same location that vied for our attention in the midst of a deadline was the Kalachakra, the Tibetan initiation, presided over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. That two such different dramas—one epitomizing the spiritual kingdom on earth, the other the ascent of secular power—could inhabit the same space may seem coincidental. Yet, according to Buddhist teachings there are no coincidences.
Our special section “States of Liberation” calls attention to another kind of shared territory: the terminology of liberation as it applies to states of the union—as in Alabama or Wisconsin—as well as to the interior states of the heart and mind. According to our contributors, this double application of liberation is also not coincidental but, rather, is rooted in aspects of American and Buddhist history that have been overshadowed by contemporary perspectives.
In “Politics of Enlightenment,” Robert Thurman reminds us that Buddha’s radical contribution to society was his reentry into the world following his great awakening; and when he proposes that Jeffersonian ideals “make America the most comfortable home on earth for the individual pursuit of enlightenment,” we can envision a new possibility for both America and for Buddhism. The responsibility of the Buddhist presence in the United States, in Thurman’s view, is to continue the unfinished work of creating a true democracy—to use Buddhist principles to help America become “America.”
In a kind of meditation on how we translate concepts of freedom, Stuart Smithers reminds us that Jefferson’s separation of church and state was not intended to clear the way for a secular monopoly—as it is often interpreted by modern materialists; instead it was Jefferson’s own religious sensibilities that compelled him to ensure the freedom and privacy of religion in a pluralistic society. In “Life of the Buddha Retold,” H. W. Schumann attributes a similar ideological separation to Shakyamuni Buddha. This may seem to contradict Thurman; yet the differences in cultural climate between the United States and Brahmanic India are precisely what lend historical credibility to Thurman’s optimism. And in another challenge to conventional expectations bell hooks, best known as a feminist and social critic, concludes that dualistic thinking is the enemy of the people, and that the deconstruction of racism and sexism must seek its source in personal transformation.
But this inspired view of East meets West does not of itself produce an unobstructed path to an idealized union of apparent inner/outer, political/spiritual dichotomies: the earliest texts of Buddhism predicted the decline of dharma; and furthermore, the degeneration from “true” to “counterfeit” dharma—as it is called—is marked by a change in emphasis from enlightenment to precepts, from liberation to codifying rules of behavior. Smithers parallels this to the decline in the United States from Jeffersonian ideals of freedom to a preoccupation with morality, and laments the mobilization of “values” by the current administration as weapons against American liberties. And he suggests that the tension between the advocates of liberation and those of ethics, which entered Buddhist history in the earliest councils, has reemerged in the European-derived Buddhist communities in this country. From this angle, the Buddhist contribution to Jeffersonian democracy cannot be accomplished without true dharma.
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