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Buddhistdoor View: Ego, Brinkmanship, and Violent Rhetoric


Never has the fiery rhetoric between the United States and North Korea been fiercer. The political and military standoff fomenting on the Korean Peninsula pits two confrontational leaders against each other: Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. In 2003, then US president George W. Bush condemned North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil” aspiring to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. The Kim regime has surely observed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing maneuvering against Hassan Rouhani’s Iran. It is not a stretch to recognize Kim’s actions as a series of pre-emptive challenges aimed at provoking his neighbors and depriving the US of a proactive choice.

Kim has not only forced Trump to be the reactive party, but also to choose between appearing toothless or acting on his “fire and fury” condemnations. Trump, unlike past US presidents, has a disorderly and rambunctious style and seems to care little about the weight of his words. Perhaps this pugilistic approach earned Trump a degree of fear and respect in the hard-nosed world of real estate and business deals, but it is rather more questionable as a style of governing and diplomacy, and it is certainly a risky way of interacting with the people around us.

The one-upmanship between Kim and Trump is not just a matter of geopolitical brinkmanship, but also of ego. Neither party appears willing to back down, or very open to rational reason. Most of us at some point have seen a heated confrontation that spiraled into a full-on public shouting match, or perhaps witnessed a bar brawl between two belligerents who could not bring themselves to back down lest it be seen as weakness or surrender in the face of the other party’s claimed dominance. Or, we might have experienced being accused of something, and instead of observing the emotions and words dispassionately and evaluating the best response before reacting, have allowed ourselves to be caught up in the wave of emotion to find a stronger word or sharper rebuke, sometimes to prove ourselves innocent or the other guilty, but often simply out of a refusal to appear to “lose” or be wrong.  

We can certainly assuage our (false) sense of self if we call people names, issue threats, or generally act with tactless bravado. So-called “macho” individuals usually deploy this strategy as an early display of dominance, to appeal to the primal “fight or flight” instinct and force others to recognize that surrender or concessions would be a better option. But what if the opponent is also “macho,” and even worse, enjoys the game of goading and trolling the easily provoked? Then bellicose language can end up enraging everyone, with unintended consequences that all sides regret. It’s a major reason for disharmony. When people see red and react on that basis, it’s also harder for them to make reasonable decisions that could defuse the situation.

Many forms of Buddhist meditation train the practitioner to observe with mindfulness their emotions as they arise and dissipate, dispelling illusions of an ego and a “person” that can be hurt. People with inflated egos, by contrast, take verbal attacks against themselves far too seriously, hence the cycle of escalation. The core Buddhist insights of all beings wishing to be happy can be combined with the active cultivation of empathy and an attempt to understand where the other’s belligerent attitude is coming from. Perhaps it stems from past experiences that are manifesting as anger against perceived enemies. 


This mental “gap” allows for real-time analysis and a kind of delayed reaction not based on impulse or personal neuroses. It gives us the time to analyze why we are itching to respond to a belligerent other in the way that we are, to evaluate its helpfulness, and finally to recalibrate our response in a way that is skillful and productive—without compromising one’s moral instincts. Whether this is too much to ask of some people is another story.

Of course, high stakes geopolitics is more complex and harder to manage than our usual workplace or home life. But beyond politics, in the heat of an argument or confrontation, the Buddhist approach should always be looking at how to minimize harm and restore harmony. This is a principle that can be applied in the public sphere as well as the private.

We don’t expect world leaders to read up on Buddhism or meditation (an unrealistic wish, sadly), but the world moves at such speed that we really do wonder whether politicians have the ability to pause, step back for a moment, and observe what is happening around them. Stepping back allows us to discern what options there might be among those that have already been attempted and failed. We can’t learn to step back without giving ourselves some mental space between an external event and our internal reaction, and this space is often best created through meditation and habitual mindfulness.

Is it a pipe dream to ask those who govern on our behalf to watch the coming and going of their thoughts, which would surely lead to less impulsive short-term decisions? Is it too much to ask them to open their minds, to admit that there are limits to conventional logic and knowledge?

See more

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