Shortly into giving a poetry reading to a new audience, I sometimes find myself saying—when I’m talking about calm—that I’m a Buddhist.
An accepting murmur from the audience generally follows.
But then I can’t resist adding, “I’m a Republican, too.”
Expressions of consternation and shock.
Then I hear myself telling the audience that I’m a “moderate-to-liberal Republican” and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Previously, I voted for a moderate Republican in the primaries, not for then-candidate Trump.
Most, but not all of my audience seems mollified.
I confess I have a number of purposes in making such revelations. Although I don’t use the terminology, chief among these is to share how the eightfold path encourages what I believe is a sorely needed political position in this early part of the 21st-century: moderation.
I trust those who follow, especially, samma sankappa (right intention), samma kammanta (right action), and samma vayama (right effort), will not be lured to the extremes of partisan politics. Rather, they will be voters who follow the middle way. They will be more than open to compromise with members of an opposing political party. They will walk without fear across many aisles. They will put practical common sense politics above sheepish adherence to party extremists. They will help get things done.
I believe in sila (ethical conduct), in a balance between emotions that encourage karuna (compassion and the good of the many) with panna (tough-minded reason and wisdom). Love, but combined with an enlightened capitalism and a foreign policy that encourages women’s rights, non-nuclear proliferation, and freedom of speech and of the press.
Just as right action makes Buddhists deplore sexual predators, right speech helps to explain why Buddhists detest lies from the president or from Democrats, as well as detest the whole concept of beliefs masked as “alternate facts.” Name-calling, insults, hypocrisy, gossip (much of Twitter, too much of other social media) are an anathema.
Of course my beliefs and actions aren’t those of all Buddhists. A popular stereotype of Buddhists has us all sitting calmly, with equilibrium and some might say with smugness, under Bodhi trees, small flowers in our hands as we vaguely smile at the ins and outs of politics. Not so.
Another stereotype is of the Buddhist martyr monk, he who so believes in peace that he burns himself to death in a public place. Not so.
Buddhists worldwide can be just as varied in their politics and political actions and inactions as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and those of other religions and philosophies can be varied in theirs.
Still, most American Buddhists are both left-leaning Democrat moderates or moderate-to-liberal Republicans whose tendency is to tamp things down, to go easy on or to not go along at all with inflammatory rhetoric accompanied by clever ad hominem insults slimed at one’s opponents.
Such tamping is a main reason I feel myself grateful for being a Buddhist—more specifically identifying myself in contemporary America as a Zen Buddhist.
* * *
As I write this, we in America are at a time of a massive shift in overall psyche or consciousness, a time of surrealism, lies, great partisan conflict, alternate beliefs, pogo-sticks and flip-flops, local and national journalistic and communications industry confusion and irresponsibility. As they struggle to fill gaps in the 24-hour news cycle, journalists are being conned, bullied, coerced, or flattered into presenting gossip, speculation, and rumor as a kind of “news” that could be termed “enternews,” short for how entertainment and news in our era of mass media have melded into each other, interchangeable in a way the nation has not experienced since the turn-of-the-19th-century days of yellow journalism and muckraking.
This merging has caused a well-noted national anxiety and stress syndrome, resulting for many in a barely tolerable sense of being off-balance in a time of surrealism and “This can’t be happening here.” We’re in an era similar to that previous time of great transition, the late 1950-early 1960s youth revolution best described by Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’” and his lyrics in Ballad of A Thin Man:
Because something is happening here
But ya don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
At such a time, Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness have become a draw for a battered electorate who regard them as great aids in reducing stress and anxiety. The quiet introspection of daily meditation—my preference is for walking meditation while my Episcopalian wife’s preference is for timed sitting meditation—has gained hundreds of thousands of new participants.
Gaining perspective from meditation encourages the Buddhist acknowledgment of change and impermanence as the primary roots of life rather than stasis or the attempt to keep things as they are or were. All is temporal. Things like President Trump’s reign, the opioid crisis, 2017’s hurricanes, floods, tornados, wildfires, and mass murders are inevitable, just as all things that cause suffering are inevitable.
And yet the great American poet Richard Wilbur found a way to portray a kind of Buddhist acceptance in his poem, “The Beautiful Changes.” Here’s its second stanza:
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s turning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
After meditation comes perspective and at least glimpsed understandings of the third noble truth, nirvana, or the cessation of suffering. Those people at the extremes, or even those appalled and used by the extremes of Alt-right and Alt-left, can be exhausted from remaining outraged over politics. Following Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders to the ends of the earth takes its toll. Now is a time when escape from constant pressure and stimulus is needed, yes, particularly by extremists.
Meditation may well lead to moderation.
Too, anxiety comes from a great wish of most moderates and liberals to find a smoking gun like Watergate and the Nixon tapes that might lead quickly to President Trump’s impeachment. Liberals pray for the smoking gun. Conservatives may well say, “Get it over with. Bring it on.”
These are feelings of desire and greed. Buddhists will recognize that desire and greed are root causes for the human condition of constant suffering.
But liberated from this desire to have our national psyche freed from what many perceive as madness, we may gain a further perspective: This, too, shall pass.
Should you ask a Buddhist for advice on how to cope in these days, how to remain calm, he or she may well advise Americans to turn our attention to other things. Turn off the smartphone. Shut off the TV talk shows. Resist answering the phone and/or obsessively moving from one website to another website: the New York Times, Fox News, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor . . .
Do we really need all this information? These constantly changing opinions? These new revelations? This new bid to get us involved, involved, involved? Here’s Buddhist-influenced Henry David Thoreau in Walden, all those years ago:
Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe”—and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.
The Buddhist perspective may turn us, for a few hours a day at least, toward things which may or should matter as much or more than politics. Too many have neglected how the practice of mindfulness, looking closely, being intensely absorbed by any one of the five senses, going inward exists side by side with screams and fears and dread. We forget how calm and quiet can inform, and softly, may even sing. Almost above all, Buddhism teaches us to be present in the present world. And in this world, the experience of one perfectly realized moment makes an entire life preciously worth living.
That is, as Zen would have it, you don’t have to do anything else. Seriously. Just breathe. In and out, breathe in and out. Or kick a tin can. Or shout, Hallelujah! What peace and enlightenment comes from the tiniest snap of the fingers.
Or alternately experience or contemplate:
- The taste of pistachio gelato flown in from from Italy to a local supermarket.
- The look of a hillside at dusk, with a single old oak tree upon it, the setting sun in the oak’s branches.
- That moss-covered boulder in the Japanese garden.
- A momentary flicker of insight after an hour spent pondering or discussing a new koan that concerns apple pie dowdy, the buttons on an iPad, and a woman with gray eyes as she sits beside a river.
Or a classic koan. Here are two of my favorites from the Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Chih Men, “What is the body of wisdom?”
Chih Men said, “An oyster swallowing the bright moon.”
The monk asked, “What is the function of wisdom?” Chih Men said, “A rabbit getting pregnant.”
A monk asked Yun Men, “What is talk that goes beyond Buddhas and Patriarchs?” Men said, “Cake.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.