The point of discussing a Buddhist platform is not to generate something altogether new and exotic, but to reinforce enlightenment-oriented tendencies and to mobilize active Buddhist participation in American politics.

It is a misunderstanding to think that enlightenment is some sort of final escape from life and that the doctrine of the unsatisfactory nature of samsara obviates any need for involvement with other beings or social responsibility. Because nirvana is selfless, there is no self that enjoys a state of being beyond the world. Selfish habits that dominate unenlightened living may be dissolved, but that leaves the aggregates of body and mind just as present in the world as they ever were. Buddha himself remained deeply engaged throughout his life after his enlightenment. Wisdom and compassion are ultimately inseparable, wisdom being the complete knowledge of ultimate selflessness and compassion being the selfless commitment to the happiness of others.

The Buddha was trained to be a prince in his early life, he was trained in the arts of management in times of peace and war, and was attuned to the responsibilities of a king for his subjects. He renounced being an unenlightened king. But once he attained his own enlightenment, he emerged in world history as a kingly leader with far more impact than any ordinary king. The Buddha did not teach escape from responsibility or society. He taught escape from ignorance and evil thoughts and actions. He founded not merely a religion or a therapy, he founded a quiet revolution, a total reorientation of the habits of individuals and societies that has continued to this day.

The main engine of Buddha’s revolution was the society-within-society he founded, the sangha or community, with its fourfold membership of nuns, monks, laywomen, and laymen. Within his alternative society, he was able to implement his enlightened principles of individualism, nonviolence, personal evolutionism, altruism, and pragmatism.

The Buddhist community was centered on the sacredness of the individual’s liberty, on nonviolence, on equal access to enlightenment, on simplicity and sharing of property, and on pragmatic, reasonable, consensual flexibility in all things. This community exercised a powerful and sustained influence on the larger societies within which it existed. And it spread throughout the world without any violent invasions. In America, due to our democratic ideals, Buddhism has one of its first opportunities to fully participate in society and to implement its principles for the benefit of everyone.

Thus there is a politics of enlightenment, a set of strategies based on enlightened principles that maximize beings’ progress toward enlightenment. From its principles emerge sets of policies and practices that are an indispensable part of our progress toward enlightenment. “Practice” is not merely some form of meditation, some recitation of mantra, some belief system, or set of rituals. Practice includes the committed engagement in the politics of enlightenment, social actions aimed at perfecting and beautifying the “Buddhaverse,” which must be integrated with the internal actions of meditational transmutation. The noble Eightfold Path includes authentic speech, action, and livelihood along with the five other branches of intellectual and meditational development. People should be persuaded that things are workable, and enlightened leadership can make a difference. Peoples’ optimism and determination must be mobilized by a clear and holistic assessment of the situation. Defeatism, apathy, cynicism, despair—these are invoked by the few who do better when the world is managed badly to prevent the many from demanding and implementing enlightened management. In this historical moment when American democratic ideals of freedom, civility, pluralism, altruism, and individualism make America the most comfortable home on earth for the individual pursuit of enlightenment, it is an essential form of Buddhist practice to participate in politics, to vote, to speak out, to encourage those who agree, to reason with those who disagree. It is wisdom. It is meditation. It is compassion. It is ethics. Adapted from The Politics of Enlightenment, a work in progress, to be published by Henry Holt and Company.

Robert A.F. Thurman is The Jay Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. He received Upasika ordination in 1964 and Vajracharya ordination in 1971, both from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has translated many classic texts from Tibetan to English and is a co-founder of Tibet House in New York City. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Managing Editor Carole Tonkinson and took place in Professor Thurman’s office at Columbia. The photographs are by Jeri Coppola.

Tricycle: What would be particularly Buddhist about a Buddhist political platform?

Robert Thurman: The happy answer is—nothing. The “Buddhist perspective” means the “enlightenment perspective.” America was founded on many enlightened principles, such as universal liberty, individual equality, intellectual creativity, social fraternity, and personal power, so it’s natural that Buddhism should harmonize with many of the more noble ideals of American political parties.

Tricycle: Will the engaged Buddhist movement help activate these enlightened perspectives?

Thurman: Engaged Buddhism is a concept that suggests that our real business is to meditate and then become involved because this is the modern era and we’re Americans. We’ll take a cue from Christianity and from American secularism and go out and be engaged. I’m in favor of the engaged movement, but I contest the premise that it’s a new step for Buddhists.

Tricycle: Do you think that the real business of Buddhism is meditation?

Thurman: Meditation is not the main point of Buddhism. The main point is a new vision of relationship, a vision of compassion which led to Buddha’s strong commitment to social transformation. That’s why the Buddha really could have dreamed America.

Tricycle: Whose America?

Thurman: America as it represents itself ideally, as the Jeffersonian ideal represents it. But America has never been “America.” Even Jefferson had slaves, though he tried to release them. America killed so many Native Americans. And even after slavery America kept blacks in ghettos. It still isn’t a democratic country.

Tricycle: So why is “America” the dream of Buddhism?

Thurman: Because the ideal of a democratic country where everyone is a king is definitely the dream of every Buddhist adept.

Tricycle: If Buddhism has a democratic impulse, why didn’t it produce a democratic system?

Thurman: That has to do with the structure and history of Asian societies and the method that Buddha chose for his revolution. He chose a much less flashy method than most other revolutions, including our own, but it has proved very effective. You know, Buddha was not burned at the stake, he was not crucified. He made a huge institution very cleverly. And it had an impact on all of Asian history. But the job is still not over. So America is the one place we might be able to finish it. 

Tricycle: If we could influence the presidential platform with a Buddhist revolution in mind, what might it look like?

Thurman: Basically, a Buddhist platform should say the country’s in a disastrous state. We supposedly beat Russia, but in the process we became too much like Russia. Now we have to radically change, to keep up with liberalizing forces and give no excuse to the militarizing reactionary forces who are ready to move in. We should go back to the New Deal sort of American idealism, pull together a coalition of working people, and restore America.

People should stop thinking that Buddhism is something weird and strange. Buddhist insight provides powerful support for secular humanism and enlightened individualism. 

Tricycle: What would the first step be?

Thurman: To take two hundred billion out of defense and put it into rebuilding the country as a peace investment. Troops stationed in Russia, Korea, Europe, or in the U.S. would be put to work on land reclamation, inner-city redevelopment, and all kinds of New Deal-like public works. Taking our army and putting it to work as a peace corps. The next step would be to stop being the last bastion of imperialism and really go hog wild for the world environment. Americans’ messianism must be reevoked, with the help of the Mahayana Buddhist concept of “Buddhaverse building,” and America must develop into a society which serves as an ideal goal for the entire planet. It must be rechannelled away from the militarism inherited from WWII and the Cold War, and turned into an Ashokan-Gandhian-style peace-conquest or truth-conquest. We’d have to make a major investment in education down to the daycare level. Educators would be well-paid. And never mind about busing school children—just make all the schools excellent.

Tricycle: That sounds like liberal idealism. What makes it Buddhist?

Thurman: It redefines the American revolution as fulfilling what I call the five principles of Buddhist politics. The first one is transcendental individualism, then comes nonviolence, “educationalism,” then socialism or welfarism, or you could say “compassionism.” Socialism gets people so frightened you don’t want to say it twice. But it’s socialism in the sense that it’s the theory that every living being in the society is owed a livelihood, rather than the idea that they should lift themselves by their bootstraps or starve to death. But let’s say welfarism and not frighten people right now. And the fifth principle is centralized decentralism, meaning that you need to have a very strong executive supported by very decentralized bureaucracies, which is a strange idea that I consider very practical.

Tricycle: How does this system compare with the Asian model?

Thurman: The Asian experience suggests that a very strong executive is the best guarantor for the small farmer, for the small person, against the middle-level robber-baron type, such as the state governors or the big merchants. You have a very strong central force, guaranteed from the grass roots. The democratic system is ideally suited to produce this on a regular basis with less danger of autocracy.

Tricycle: Yes. But you had better not get the wrong executive.

Thurman: That’s right. And you insure against getting the wrong executive in the Buddhist system by making sure that the executive has been a reincarnated bodhisattva for at least ten lifetimes. Now in the modern system of course you’re not likely to have that. But I like the intense exposure of the candidates on television. It’s just that the electorate is too poorly educated to use that exposure. So far the television era has been subverted by those who got into power before the television and information explosion. They still dominate the mechanism. But that doesn’t mean the media are all rotten. It means that the technology that came out of the wars has never opened up. People just haven’t been given a chance to see what technology can do given a different approach.

Tricycle: But why is any of this called a Buddhist perspective?

Thurman: We don’t need to brandish labels. Buddha just wanted to help beings to live more sensibly. People should stop thinking that Buddhism is something weird and strange. Buddhist insight provides powerful support for secular humanism and enlightened individualism.

Tricycle: The “individualism” you mention is not exactly commonly advocated by Buddhist teachers or scholars.

Thurman: You’re right. People think “no-self” means there’s no one home. That’s wrong. Free of fixed self, a living being thrives. And each is a unique individual socially-speaking. It’s simplistic to think individualism is bad bad bad. No one wants to join a flock of sheep. There’s something excellent about individualism.

Tricycle: As expressed in Buddhism?

Thurman: Of course! The first meaning of Siddhartha’s renunciation, affirmed again and again after enlightenment, is that the individual’s highest duty to him or herself is to evolve from an egocentric into an enlightened being. Buddha was a superindividualist. He said no to his father, he said no to his wife, he said no to everything. He is the greatest individual in history, actually. He showed that the individual could become a perfect buddha.

Tricycle: How would you facilitate this Buddhist view of individualism? Through education?

Thurman: Nobody in politics has come up with the Buddhist view, which is that the purpose of human life is education. The purpose of education is not to give a person skills so they can go out and be productive in some body’s company. The purpose of education is to bring to flower all the abilities of a living individual. People in a civilized society should be spending their whole lives educating themselves because that’s what the society is there for. That’s what human life is for. So the Buddhist view adds to the idea that “we need education to compete with Japan,” or “we need education to have more engineers.” It says that education is the real purpose of life. As for society, it’s cheaper than prisons and more humane. And we finally get away from the nonsense that it’s necessary to have starving people to frighten everyone else into working hard. We talk about good health and food standards because each human life is intensely and immensely valuable. Each one is a great resource and we want to nourish it. And that’s not going to wreck the planet with overpopulation. We can certainly control population growth—with wealth. Wealth absolutely cuts population down and it’s no mystery.

Tricycle: And if population is reduced and nations can feed their own people, will this reduce warfare and allow for a restructuring of the budget?

Thurman: Well, the politicians say, We need the defense industry to make peace. But Buddhism suggests that the means make the end and you can’t have peace by fomenting war. A huge war industry will always find ways to use its products and, therefore, you’re putting human inventiveness to work on the wrong thing. You have to have a way of life that is peaceful. And again of course, we might come up with a few Buddhist inventions like real ninjas to take a Saddam Hussein to the World Court to pay for all the ducks that he oiled, not to mention the Kurds and the Shiites killed.

Tricycle: Would meditation or teachings to develop the mind be included in education?

Thurman: Absolutely. Practically speaking, you wouldn’t want to go in and say, Well, we’re going to have everybody doing samadhi in the gym on mats, though, in fact, that is the way it should be. In classes here at Columbia for example, in what is called Reading Period, if I give a class on Tibetan philosophy or the history of Asia, people could have a period of meditation. Those who wish to meditate should have facilities and coaching, and students could meditate on philosophical subjects or things that require difficult thinking. Learning how to think systematically should be taught to everybody, but advocating that politically is impractical.

Tricycle: Well, unless you incorporate it into a free public education system, it doesn’t sound too democratic.

Thurman: It is if you look at Ashoka (the second-century Buddhist king of India), he didn’t just say, Everybody should be a Buddhist. On the contrary, he said, You can tell I’m a Buddhist king because I say everybody should do whatever it is they want to do, and they should do it very well, and they should do it nonviolently. They should do it enlightenedly, and they should do it without fighting each other and having religious wars. Ashoka showed he was a Buddhist by being tolerant of other ways and by trying to extract from them those aspects of training or practice or ideology that made them harmonize. Enlightened discipline is not some sort of control discipline.

Tricycle: Is this not the same plea for tolerance made by secular humanists?

Thurman: A Buddhist political perspective reinforces the best of Jeffersonian democracy. The present Dalai Lama once said that he’s the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson. He visited the Jefferson Memorial and Monticello and was very intrigued by the inventions and the library and the architecture. He said to the press, as a joke, “I think I must be his reincarnation. I really like him.”

Tricycle: Someone said that Jefferson had owned a collection of Buddhist books, but when I called Monticello, the librarian said that there was only one comparative religion title in his library. 

Thurman: He was too early for Buddhist books, but Jefferson and Franklin knew Sir William Jones, who had been in India and who had began some translating from Hindu texts. So they were influenced by some thinking from the East this way.

Tricycle: Would you prefer a democracy to an enlightened theocracy?

Thurman: Theocracy is the wrong term for the Tibetan form of government because it assumes an authoritarian structure which Buddhism doesn’t have. It has all sorts of female beings and angels and buddhas and they’re in every atom everywhere. So Buddhocracy is quite a different kettle of fish than theocracy. Buddhist monasteries are run on the rules established by the Buddha and—at least in Tibet—disobedience or critical thinking is fostered more than obedience.

Tricycle: Is pluralism the enlightened democratic version of this kind of disobedience?

Thurman: The American revolution is based on generosity, optimism, faith in human development and enlightenment. Its basis is the European Enlightenment and the best of Christianity. But the European Enlightenment became a little too materialistic in its drive to escape from being backward, from being dominated by spiritual absolutism. So it lost touch with the art of inner development. If, for example, you want to have a country based on generosity, then you have to have an education system that cultivates people’s generosity systematically. You have to learn to meditate on generosity. Whoever heard of a meditation on generosity in any European tradition? Actually, a few European monastics might have had something like that but it was lost by the Protestants. America can express something about this generosity of nature. That’s our role and that’s our goal. We’re to be a beacon to other nations. The Second Inaugural has beautiful language that’s just totally inspired bodhisattva language.

Tricycle: Can this generosity affect race relations in this country?

Thurman: We had a huge holocaust of the red and the black peoples. We have to pay them back. Of course that’s not possible, but we could pay something back in the present generation by really opening the process to them. And if some of them want a separate country, let them have a separate country. Many Natives and African-Americans probably would prefer to integrate in someway on a basis of real support, where they get a real affirmative action, where they’re really matching us one for one. That would be ideal for us all because they enrich us enormously. We should adopt Malcolm X’s brilliant idea and allocate a hundred dollars a head for every minority member, and create large lobbying foundations in Washington, a three-and-a-half-billion-dollar foundation for black interests, a one-hundred-million-dollar Native American foundation, and so forth. Indian affairs should be moved out of the Interior into its own special agency, perhaps as part of a minority super-agency. We should affirm vigorously the vision of pluralistic equality of Jefferson and company.

Tricycle: You firmly believe that Buddhists have a responsibility to vote, even in these times, when the whole country has been expressing its despair about a lack of real choice?thurman2

Thurman: The idea that, well, we’ll just sit it out because whatever they do it will be a mess, is really irresponsible. It’s very unBuddhistic and totally unenlightened. Richard Nixon made a study of the last election and he said that 155,000 votes could have swung the election from Bush to Dukakis. Only 155,000. There are more than half a million Buddhists in the U.S. today, counting the ethnic Buddhist communities. There are at least 100,000 Euro-Buddhists, individuals who tend to be strong-minded and influential in their circles, but alienated from politics, disillusioned with America, and inactive in voting and the political process.

Tricycle: Do you feel unequivocally positive about any one candidate?

Thurman: Yes, Bill Clinton. He’ll make mistakes; he’ll compromise, but the people he will bring in, and the new wave that he will inspire, will reenact the idealism of Roosevelt.

Tricycle: Clinton’s inclusion of Tibet in his platform must make him an attractive candidate for you?

Thurman: Yes, Bill Clinton has said he will veto the Chinese tyrants.

Tricycle: What about Clinton’s position on capital punishment?

Thurman: It definitely bothers me. I don’t agree with him. Unfortunately, law and order and toughness have been symbolized by an executive’s willingness to execute individual criminals. This must change. The individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be manifested in society’s own self-restraint in the face of righteous killing. Not killing the death-row inmate should be elevated to a symbol of our strength. As we rehabilitate murderers, we rehabilitate ourselves, our society.

Tricycle: Do you have any respect at all for practitioners who use the teachings to explain not voting?

Thurman: Sure I do. But it’s a waste of insight. If only those people on their Zen pillows sitting around acting above it all would march down to register, and take their families and friends down and inform themselves, and say, We’re going to use our Buddhist no-mind and clear mind to find out who’s a good sheriff, and who’s a good assembly-man or assembly-woman, and who’s a good governor and congress-person, and then we’re going to vote! So, my urging to the American Buddhist is: get out and vote for the closest thing you can find to your Buddhist principles in the political arena, when it gets down to it. You can complain about the whole process, and you should, but get into the process.

Tricycle: What do you say to Buddhists who feel that politics is the ultimate swamp of samsara?

Thurman: I say recognize that the absolute is the relative, that nirvana is relativity. There is no way of not making a decision, and within every decision there’s always a better or a worse. They are not equal. This attempt to go beyond good and evil posits some dualistic idea about nirvana. But let’s not be dualistic. Nirvana is not someplace else. To go beyond good and evil means that good and evil are relative aspects that require choices. And so, get into the process. I don’t say vote for anybody in particular but be practical. Look and see who’s doing what. Voting is Buddha’s power that he’s given to us.