Politics has always been a part of people’s lives, but today the relevance of politics feels more pronounced when compared with the relatively quiet late 1990s and early 2000s. The reasons for this are varied: technology and social media have brought the world closer together and have made it easier to learn of important events around the world and to grasp their significance. Furthermore, there is an incredible level of dissatisfaction with conventional politics in much of the West, which has led to a series of seismic events—the volatile Trump presidency, Brexit, and the rise of the populist right in Europe* are just a few manifestations of the profound impatience with (and even despair at) a myriad of social, economic, and political problems in Western society today.
The misconception that Buddhism avoids politics is not only incorrect but deprives the world of the opportunity to reflect on how Buddhist values could contribute to addressing the great political problems of the age—in non-partisan ways, ideally. In this age of great dissatisfaction (known to Buddhists as suffering (dukkha), in a more existential sense), Buddhists have what we might call a “bodhisattva opportunity” to see how insights found in the vast canon of Buddhist literature can help people engage with politics. This is not to say that one needs to sign up for an activist cause or participate in a demonstration. Nor is it to deny that Buddhism is, in an ultimate sense, beyond politics. But these caveats do not obstruct Buddhists from thinking “politically.”
If we look at political trends in the Western world, it seems immediately apparent that, for many people, expectations are not being met. While we cannot list them comprehensively, what we can be certain of is that at the start of this millennium, few foresaw the global financial crisis and its effects: the increase in (economic) inequality and increased unemployment or underemployment. Whereas people at the end of the 20th century generally felt confident about the future, the inability of Western governments to decisively tackle issues such as the economic crisis and its aftermath, immigration, or terrorism—along with a series of misadventures in the Middle East since 2001 that have divided opinion in the West and drained already tight national finances—has led to a growing sense of existential threat. This fundamental fear and dissatisfaction has reached a point where many people in developed economies feel their leaders are unable to bridge the gap between their expectations and the current situation.
Of course, policies instituted by Western politicians have often not helped or even actively contributed to this malaise. The raising of tuition fees in the UK, George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, the deregulation of the banks under Bill Clinton in the 1990s—it is possible to draw up an entire list of policy-related crises that are probable culprits for the widespread sense of dissatisfaction or political dukkha in the West that we see today.
The Second Noble Truth is clear about the cause of dukkha: it is craving, or clinging (tanha), which in the Buddhist doctrine leads to the repeated cycle of death and rebirth in our conventional world of samsara. The Buddha spoke of four things that we typically cling to: sensual pleasures (which includes resisting unpleasant experiences), the notion/sense of self, views, and routines and rituals.
There is a fascinating parallel here with the dogmatic clinging to political ideology, which only leads to further partisan division and an inability to compromise. At least in the US, it seems that dividing lines—from party affiliation to social issues such as homosexuality or gun control—have never been sharper. Fundamentalist Christians have no room for compromise with atheist secularists. Hardcore conservatives see democratic socialists as communists, while much of liberal, wealthy Hollywood does not seem to understand that Trump’s election victory was a cry of rage (perhaps inept and misled, but real rage nevertheless) against “the establishment.” At the grassroots level, people are starting to see through this division, and the success of non-politician Trump was a repudiation of the old ways. But this has yet to result in a recalibration of the deeply entrenched Republican and Democratic parties.
In politics, there are interesting ethical questions on the extent to which one should stick to one’s principles and how far one should compromise. A ferocious attachment to principles can lead to completely blinkered dogma about, say, taxation, government regulation, or incendiary issues such as abortion. Yet should a party or politician indulge only in compromise, one might conclude that there is no longer any real choice or values-driven politics, a feeling that has been festering for a while in the West. Craving is itself built on ignorance, the root cause of suffering. Ignorance is a multifaceted notion that, at its heart, simply means that we do not see things for how they are, and we are too lost in our own neuroses, delusions, and projections to understand the world in a more clear-eyed way.
The main distinction between a non-Buddhist approach to politics and a Buddhist one is that the latter starts from the principle of non-attachment. In a previous commentary we proposed that social activism (and by extension, political action and thinking) has only a limited impact on the existential problems of the world. And many once-passionate activists will admit that this can lead to burnout, bitterness, and a general sense of helplessness. We must be grounded in the feasible, even as we aim for the ideal. Practicing non-attachment in such situations could teach us how to let go of lost battles and how to make peace with those with differing political opinions. No matter how divergent our politics might be, we are all flailing in the same sea of rebirth and suffering.
Buddhism is a transcendental religion, and the first priority of any practitioner is to see past the illusory veil of this world and attain insight. However, disciples of the Buddha should be mindful of the fact that individuals do not exist in a vacuum. We talk much about individual mindfulness, but perhaps today’s political climate in the West is a ripe time for Buddhists to discuss “public” mindfulness.
All of this leads us to the Third Noble Truth; the reassurance of a solution to dukkha. This shows us the way to the Fourth Noble Truth of the Noble Eightfold Path—a universal way of life that is well-suited for today’s politics of dissatisfaction . . . but given its complexity, this will be a discussion for another occasion.
* Although populist parties in the Netherlands and France lost their elections, they gained a lot of ground, and with elections coming up in Germany, the populist right is expected to gain even more.
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