As I write this at least one looming civilizational disaster has been averted: a second term as US president will not happen for Donald Trump, the man whom biographer David Cay Johnston called “the greatest con artist in the history of the world.” Buddhists, or at least this Buddhist, can greet this news with joy. The election results have concrete benefits for those who have been hurt by the policies of the Trump administration or are vulnerable to such harm—which actually includes every living being because Trump’s ecological policies have contributed to hastening the destruction of the environment and causing the deaths of billions of wild animals every year. Whatever one thinks of President-elect Joe Biden, his victory seems to have moved us away from the dark timeline and toward the possibility of positive change for the world.
Some will object to a Buddhist weighing in on politics. They may not believe that Buddhism has a political heart or that its tenets can guide our political aspirations and commitments, or they may hold that the separation of church and state should be upheld in all situations. But Buddhism has never been entirely separate from the political world, and pretending otherwise makes us likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.
History shows—abundantly—that there is no magic shield to protect Buddhism from exploitation by ill-intentioned politicians and intellectuals. The 20th Century furnishes us with many examples. In the 1930s, Julius Evola, an Italian fascist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, wrote a glowing appreciation of the teachings of the historical Buddha called The Doctrine of Awakening. In the Pali canon, he found a heroic “Aryan” morality; the fact that Buddhists were using the term to subvert the then-popular notion that nobility comes from an ethnic heritage was apparently lost on Evola. Meanwhile, in Japan, some Zen Buddhist teachers used teachings on emptiness and not-self to justify “selfless killing” in the service of the country’s imperialist war.
More recently, Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have declared war against ethnic minorities in order to defend their Buddhist homeland against perceived ideological threats. In Myanmar, the military atrocities have risen to the level of outright genocide.
All of this might lead us to believe that Buddhism is itself politically pernicious or, at best, neutral and capable of being bent to suit whatever worldview may be surging with power. Yet that would be a mistake.
The examples above run counter to Buddhism’s central principles and teachings, which occur repeatedly in the most authoritative texts and voices of the tradition—and they obscure a radical political heart that beats at the center of the dharma.
Some of the oldest discourses present the Buddha as against discrimination based on the color of one’s skin (Vasettha Sutta; SN 3.9, Assalayana Sutta; MN 93), as anti-war, committed to absolute nonviolence towards humans and animals (Kakacupama Sutta; MN 21, Yodhajiva Sutta; SN 42.3), and opposed to the destruction of trees and plants (Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, MN 38). The Buddha also proposed what we would today call a universal basic income. Mahayana expansions of these teachings, in the form of the bodhisattva ideal, valorize extreme generosity and care for others, and question religious and social hierarchies (Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra).
As a tradition overwhelmingly shaped and recorded by men, the record on sexism is more inconsistent. The Buddha affirmed the full potential of women and crafted a monastic order to allow them to leave their usual social roles, one with inbuilt protections against male violence and domination, such as giving women control over ordination, requiring them to travel in groups when in the wilderness, and allowing them to keep simple weapons for self-defense. Yet at other times the tradition sought to undo these gains, limiting the scope of attainment possible in a female body, subjugating nuns to monks and presenting the Buddha as a reluctant liberator. Occasionally, luminaries such as Zen master Dogen critiqued such sexism. But generations of women have needed to hack their own paths to freedom in the patriarchal jungle.
We should not fear asking what political trends resonate with the dharma, but we can be cautious in answering the question.
In the last century, teachings of holistic liberation that resonate with the radical heart of the dharma have become the centerpiece of many traditions, which serve as counterexamples to the sometimes horrific ways the dharma has been used. Chittadhar Hrdaya’s classic 20th century Nepalese telling of the Buddha’s life, which he wrote from prison, imagines a picturesque Buddhist utopia where government programs protect the ecology, eradicate poverty, provide free healthcare, and foster culture and the arts. Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993), who has been called the most important Buddhist thinker in contemporary Thailand, argued for “Dhammic Socialism,” a term he coined in the late 1960s. His work inspired Thai activist and writer Sulak Sivaraksa, who has spent the last few decades advocating for a Buddhism that fosters peace and positive social change. Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh is famous throughout the world for his anti-war efforts and advocacy on behalf of global ecology, refugees, and inter-cultural unity and understanding. Modern Taiwan has seen an incredible proliferation of socially engaged Buddhism groups like Tzu Chi, headed by the Chan master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun for whom “compassionate service to others is the principal way to cultivate the self.” Tzu Chi runs everything from kindergartens to schools to medical clinics. In the West, organizations like the Zen Peacemakers, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Buddhist Global Relief, and many others pursue anti-militarist, anti-racist, and egalitarian agendas.
Whether or not we want to use these loaded terms, the dharma teaches nonviolence, universal compassion, goodwill, non-possession, and advocates for the alleviation of poverty. It also deconstructs identifications with the body, which include race, birth, and gender. (Thus should we be surprised that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has said on several occasions that he is a “socialist” and “a Marxist monk”?) The dharma teaches interdependence and the clear-eyed understanding of causality: what actually leads to what.
Surely we should ask ourselves what political platforms and principles most accurately reflect these teachings. We should not fear asking what political trends resonate with the dharma, but we can be cautious in answering the question.
Political candidates who reject racism and nationalism, who advocate for the noninjury of the Earth and all beings, who view our resources not as individual possessions but as goods to share, and who are in favor of the guarantee of basic resources to all—money, food, medicine, shelter, education—are surely advocating action in harmony with the traditional, nonsectarian essence of the dharma. With the hope held out to the world by seeing Trump defeated, the time is ripe for us to rededicate ourselves to expressing the values of the dharma in our politics. Buddhists will always live in the world, and Buddhism will always have a political voice. Let’s make sure that voice is calling for compassion and not hate.