Although they accomplished nothing, white supremacists will see this week’s occupation of the Capitol as a victory. It’s frustrating, but they see all of their actions, however trivial or counterproductive, as victories. That delusion is their core belief: they were born winners.
It’s a logic that turns all of their flaws into virtues and failures into successes. But as Jean-Paul Sartre argued in his Anti-Semite and Jew and Friedrich Nietzsche before him in the Genealogy of Morals, this inversion is meaningless. By turning their losses into wins, they make their victories empty. In Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis got what they wanted, but their vision was so perverse that they could never be satisfied. They continued their conquest until it led to their own destruction. In America over the past four years, the hate groups again got what they wanted, but it did not make their lives any better. They may gleefully smile as they tear apart our social contract, but their glee is not joy. Their schadenfreude will never satisfy them.
The eightfold path begins with right view. Buddhist teachings stress again and again that only when we see reality clearly do we have any chance of ending our suffering or the suffering of others. I doubt that I see things clearly. At this moment, everything I see is red. But I know that a worldview cannot be correct if its central truth is the superiority of one person or group.
The supremacist must twist the whole world to conform with their belief. Since they are born winners, all of their failures must be only apparent failures. The president’s disastrous response to COVID-19 must actually have been perfect. His landslide defeat was actually the opposite. All of these mental gymnastics have to take place in order to avoid the simple reality that the “natural-born winners” have lost, their “best and brightest” are incompetent, and in making America great, they have made it smaller and weaker.
Still, they insist despite all evidence to the contrary that they have won, will continue winning, and are winners by birthright. Although this belief has become toxic for them, I think it is something we all believe to be true to some degree. We can look at our lives and wonder how it is that, even though we try our best, things don’t turn out quite right. We behave in ways that we are ashamed of, the deeds we can control have unforeseeable consequences, and bad things happen to us and the people we care about for no discernable reason. We believe that we are essentially good, so there must be some other explanation for why we can’t fully control ourselves or what happens to us. Someone or something else must be to blame.
What persists is some sense that our pure intentions are somehow corrupted when they manifest as actions in the world. Where that corruption occurs has been the subject of debate among philosophers and religious thinkers throughout history. Some blame the body; others blame societal, natural, or supernatural forces.
This belief that our good nature is somehow sullied appears in (primarily Mahayana) Buddhism as buddhanature—the idea that we all inherently possess the capacity to become an enlightened buddha. The teachings around buddhanature are meant to address the same fundamental existential dilemma that the white supremacists are struggling with—that is, finding value in our lives despite our failures and flaws. Of course, the Buddhist teachings take a completely different approach. Rather than insisting that the self is good and the other is bad, the Buddhist teachings say we can improve ourselves by examining and eventually dismantling or abandoning our notion of self. And according to the 13th-century Japanese Zen master Dogen, when we let go of the self, we end up seeing that our true nature is no different from the world around us. In other words, we recognize the emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence of all conditioned things. This is the Buddha’s right view. From this perspective, the only supremacy that is possible would be fundamentally fleeting and illusory.
The truth of our shared buddhanature probably does not offer much solace amid the looming threat of an authoritarian coup. But as I witness people acting with such conviction in defense of a delusion, I can’t help but ask myself if perhaps my reality is the one that is skewed. If I don’t at least entertain the possibility, then I am sure to fall victim to a delusion as well.
Buddhism, too, asserts that the world we see is not truly what is—that behind all of our experience as flawed and dissatisfied individuals is our true and pure nature. Is this idea, that my apparent suffering is in truth a misunderstanding about the perfect harmony of all things, not an empty inversion as well? I don’t believe it is. Because it does not reverse the dichotomy of bad self and good world or good self and bad world; it collapses it.
The suffering of white supremacists is obvious. No joyful person behaves like they do. That does not mean, by any measure, that their suffering is worse than the suffering they inflict on others. But they are still suffering and will continue suffering until they let go of their ideas about who they are. This defeat really can be a victory for them if they can see why they lost.
I don’t have much faith that their delusion will be shattered this week or that white supremacy will be going away any time soon. But when I see their suffering and recognize it as my own, my frustration momentarily recedes, and for an instant, I stop seeing red and instead see a faint light in the distance that looks like the possibility of a way forward.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.