As we head into the darkest period of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere, we also may feel a sense that we are heading into a rather dark period of human history. The climate crisis, for one, looms large over all of us, as the poles—including the Himalayan “third pole”—melt and wildfires rage across not only the Amazon, but also in the Congo, Siberia, California, and Australia to name just a few places that have made international headlines, if only for a few days at a time.
This crisis would, we hope, garner the attention it deserves if it weren’t for the many other troubling maladies plaguing our world today: refugee crises, conflict in the Middle East, trade wars the world over, and, in many places around the world, citizens rising up in protest against unjust leadership. In October, Amnesty International noted that protests were taking place in Bolivia, Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, Guinea, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Spain, and the UK. They and others speculate about the causes of the protests, ranging from rising income inequality and protesting inaction on climate change, to allegations of corruption among leaders and the desire for greater political liberty.
Those with a keen sense of history will see echoes in these protests with those of the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, Arab Spring in 2011, the June Struggle for democracy in South Korea in 1989, the American Civil Rights battles of the early 1960s, and the Suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Going backward in time, we find even more instances of those without rights demanding greater equality from those in power.
For many people, Buddhism has little direct guidance to offer in times of such trouble. The religion is treated as a largely private affair, offering hope for a better rebirth—perhaps in a Pure Land away from this turmoil—or quiet practices or rituals to be performed in one’s home or local temple. However, the Buddha himself, and Buddhists throughout history, have directed their beliefs and practices to all spheres of life, including the political. In fact, for the Buddhist, the vision of good political leadership can and should mirror that of spiritual leadership.
Australian scholar Craig Reynolds clarifies: “The vocabulary we employ in English to make this distinction—“political leadership” on the one hand, and religion-based “charismatic authority” on the other—divides the terrestrial world from the spiritual world in a way that Buddhist belief does not recognize.” (2005, 219)
As we ponder this relationship, we can examine the importance of responsibility in choosing our leaders, political and religious. In the lifetime of the Buddha, there was an explosion of possibilities for one’s religion. And likewise, India was free of clear political boundaries, so one could wander into and among the different political systems of the time. The Buddha himself knew of the many and varied systems of political rule. He used this knowledge at one point to critique the varna or class system, saying that in some places there are not four types of person, but only two: the masters and the workers. The class system of ancient India is like the political systems around us today: it has been created by humans and can, by humans, be changed.
Nonetheless, there is no benefit in mere change for change’s sake. This is where the role of good leadership is so important. Former US president Harry S. Truman popularized the phrase, “The buck stops here!” to claim personal responsibility for the successes and, more importantly, the failings of America under his leadership. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is not only good leadership, it is essential for any kind of progress as a Buddhist practitioner. This is by no means easy in today’s political world, where brash egotism and blame seem more successful than ever.
But we can think of and praise those leaders who have shown responsibility and humility. A leader, in politics or in religion, should listen to the people and adjust to their needs. If people are suffering acutely, swift changes should be made. If suffering is less severe but chronic, then more gradual shifts can be made. All of this should be in the service, however, of general welfare and stability. It is only with these conditions, after all, that people can feel safe and at ease and cultivate a spiritual life.
In fact, Buddhist teachers Robert Thurman and Mark Epstein interpret the six realms of becoming in the Buddhist bhavacakra, or wheel of life, as psychological states that we all might come in and out of on a regular basis. The human realm, regarded as the best state for developing Buddhist virtues, meditation, and wisdom, has as its mark the right balance of suffering, to make us aware of this aspect of samsaric reality, and the safety and leisure to engage in these lofty pursuits. Without time and security, we slip into the animal realm, where instinct and survival-needs take over. With too much free time and security, we lose touch and enter the godly realms, where beings neglect their practice.
With this in mind, leaders must be careful that they, likewise, do not lose touch with the realities of average people. Such leaders, like godly beings, might look down on their people with a sense of superiority and perhaps even scorn. However, such a sense of separation is borne of ignorance, and at the end of the god’s life is usually a moment of profound regret as they realize that they have used up precious good karma and will most likely plummet to a much lower rebirth. One hesitates to even bring to mind certain dictators who in recent years plummeted from god-like lives in bejeweled palaces to ghastly deaths at the hands of their people. While Buddhist leaders may not have met this fate, a number of notable teachers have recently found themselves at the heart of scandals and disgrace.
Better leadership comes from those who remain of the people, in deed as well as rhetoric. Such leadership presents and continually refines a vision for the future that enhances the well-being of the people at all levels of society and strengthens bonds with neighbors. Such leadership embodies “The buck stops here!” mentality when things go wrong, recognizing that nobody is perfect. This humility and willingness to change then inspires others to think and do likewise.
Even antagonists might see this and decide to let differences rest in order to combine efforts to tackle larger problems. In this way, noble friendships are forged between leaders and between societies. Today the world faces unprecedented challenges. But those challenges are largely, like our political systems, of our own making. With noble friendship and leaders embodying ideals of generosity, honesty, and wisdom, we surely can tackle these oncoming challenges fully and for the ongoing benefit of all.
Reynolds, Craig J. 2005. “Power” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism by Donald S. Lopez Jr., Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The world has a third pole – and it’s melting quickly (The Guardian)
Protests around the world explained (Amnesty International)
Buddhism 101: Six Realms of Existence – Ep. 127 (Robert A.F. Thurman)