Dharma practitioners the world over can be found all across the political spectrum, so it would be foolish for a particular political party to lay claim to the Buddha. The Dalai Lama has famously called himself a Marxist, for instance, while advocates of the market economy have had no problem making Buddhist practice their own. It is, after all, only through a selective reading of scripture that any religion arrives at coherent social or political views relevant to the contemporary life of its practitioners. And even when values are shared, how best to express them institutionally is a persistent topic of debate.
In our last issue, Zen priest and psychologist Seth Segall wrote that “the Buddha preached a gospel of personal virtue rather than one of collective political participation and social action, and although he treated persons from all castes equably and abjured violence, he never advocated the abolition of the caste system or the disbanding of armies.” In other words, although one finds in the vast body of Buddhist texts some specific guidance on such matters, political engagement is not where one finds the great weight of concern.
We published Segall’s essay just before the American presidential election—seemingly an age ago—yet his statement anticipated a question that has since been raised with renewed vigor: What, if anything, do the teachings tell us about our fraught and radically altered political climate? And what do they tell us about the relative virtues of specific forms of government?
In this issue, Stephen Batchelor addresses the first question by considering Britain’s exit from the European Union (“A Buddhist Brexit,” p. 68). Making no bones about his own dismay at the vote to leave, he writes:
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.
Batchelor goes on to present an interpretation of the texts that supports political engagement, but I find the above statement of particular interest in connection with Segall’s. Few of us would disagree, say, that sexism runs counter to the teachings, yet we think this way only because of the modern liberal values we bring to our reading of the tradition. Buddhism has mostly been very sexist in practice, but that is because it has been a part of patriarchal societies, not because of any intrinsic opposition to equality. At the same time, the rejection of sexism is itself due not to something categorical in Buddhism but mainly to contemporary attitudes held by contemporary Buddhists. The religious studies scholar Reza Aslan encapsulates the openness of religious texts when he notes that the Bible was used in U.S. history both to justify slavery and to argue for its abolition. Indeed, sometimes even the same passages were used by those on both sides to further their viewpoints.
If the things that we commonly hold dear are not values intrinsic to Buddhism, how are we to base them on anything other than mere personal preference? For the Buddhist scholar Kurt Spellmeyer, as for Batchelor, there is no answer set in stone but rather a process requiring discernment, knowledge, and critical thought: in this way we draw out deeper patterns in the tradition, those that speak most meaningfully, and with the greatest moral import, to the dilemmas we struggle with. At a time when the West’s core institutions are being called into question, Spellmeyer finds in a range of teachings stretching from the Pali canon to the Zen patriarch Linji a radically inclusive ethic that can inform and affirm modern participatory democracies (“Is the Dharma Democratic?” p. 62). Invoking the leveling spirit of equality Linji calls for, Spellmeyer offers a Buddhist context for the dangers of exclusion:
Separating the enlightened from the ignorant, the cultivated from the crude, the right-minded from the deceived, we naturally want to associate with the people we admire or trust. But membership in our chosen group comes at a steep price: the mentality of constant defensiveness.
Spellmeyer’s and Batchelor’s essays tell us something about both Buddhism as a source of values and the process by which we arrive at the values we adopt. This process is grounded in the literature and not a matter of simple preference. The two writers do here what members of all traditions have always done: we enter into open dialogue and try as best we can to sort things out.