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Dharma and Politics

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Many traditional Buddhist monastics tend to look on politics as worldly affairs that are part of samsara, to be shunned. Especially if you are a hermit, you might exert all your effort on your spiritual practice in solitude, not becoming bogged down in the business of the outside world, which is not only distracting but can throw one into a whirlwind of conflicts. Because of these possible detrimental effects, some of the wisest masters often encourage their followers to leave the world behind and to devote oneself wholeheartedly to solitary spiritual practice. There is a whole genre of writing that praises the life of hermit, the virtues of living and practicing in seclusion, and the serenity of natural surroundings.

In the East, there are people who have given up the conventional life—marriage, work, and everything else everyone does—in order to live with simplicity in the mountains and delve deeply into the Dharma. They are often revered by the public; they are perceived as exalted because of their courage to sacrifice a worldly life, which many would not dare to do. They are seen as transcendent beings whose minds rise above all earthly desires and impulses. The whole culture morally and financially supports these individuals, who require only very basic food and shelter.

However, this tradition is beginning to die out as cultures become more modernized. Today, very few people are interested in taking up such a lifestyle, and society might not be eager to support them. While such a way of life might appear boringly stoic to many people who are busily pursuing life’s goals, trying to find happiness in carnal pleasures and materialistic achievements, the opposite is true. These hermits are some of the happiest people on earth, partly because their minds are purified by their spiritual observances, and also because they are not caught up in personal conflicts and politics of society.

No matter how strong our desire for enlightenment might be, in today’s world, most of us cannot run into the mountains as life-long hermits. We are inevitably part of a society that is becoming more and more complex, as we pay our phone bills, purchase groceries, have medical check-ups, and pursue higher education to get a decent job. The litany of requirements simply to be able to survive in modern society keeps growing. Not only that, we’re becoming ever more political, whether or not we engage with social issues meaningfully.

Within the last 10 years, politics in the US have become uglier, to extent that there is a culture war taking place. This is making many people confused, unhappy, and angry. One of the main causes of this is that Americans are becoming more progressive and multicultural. If you happen to be in the New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, you feel the spirit of a melting pot of cultures, where people from all religious and racial backgrounds mingle and interact with each other in harmony. The United States has perhaps the least homogeneous culture of any nation. It can be regarded as a model for a future planetary society where humanity lives in peace, without being bound by the chains of tribalism. America is also not as religious as it used to be. In the foreseeable future, there might be a day when it will no longer be regarded as a Christian nation.

All of these progressive changes are presenting an existential threat to some of the conservatism that is strongly rooted in the American version of Judeo-Christian values and an old perception of national identity. The political right has been quite busy attempting to reverse this trend by any and all means, including reversing existing laws that many champions of individual freedom fought hard to win. These attempts will perhaps not be successful in the long term. While there have been some successes in the struggle of the political right, they may not have longevity. When a system is about to die, there is sometimes a late-stage revival that comes as a last gasp during the death throes. In essence, a strong schism between these two opposing forces—conservatives and progressives—are causing a division within American culture. And this is true for almost every country in the world.

Many of my friends are American Buddhists, and some of them are very affected by what is happening in their country. It is a confusing time for everyone. They feel that they cannot stay away from politics, but they also feel that politics are so samsaric that even thinking about it brings their mind to its lowest denomination, infused with anger and judgment. It’s irresistibly tempting for our ego to take sides, to become divisive, and to jump onto one side of the whole picture. Our primitive impulses can be easily activated.

In today’s world, we Buddhists should apply the teaching of the Buddha during these unfolding challenges. Compassion and equanimity are the best medicine. Those who live on the other side of the ideological aisle should be regarded as one of us—we cannot not exclude them by labeling them with harsh, derogatory words. We need to remember that they are human beings just like ourselves; and they too have people in their lives who they love, they laugh at good jokes, they sometimes cry, and, in their minds, they are doing their best. If we feel that they are wrong, we can have compassion for their ignorance, and we can question our own stance too, since being self-righteous is the hardest thing to recognize.

Can we remain in equanimity while we engage with politics in various arenas, such as conversations other people who might have different views? As Buddhists, we all know that equanimity is the heart of our Dharma practice. One of main qualities of the Buddha that often pops up in our collective imagination is that he resides in equanimity in the face of all situations and circumstances. Can we hold the intention to embody this quality of the Buddha to the best of our ability, instead of easily indulging our primitive impulses? 

As a lighthearted recommendation, whenever we are about to read the news or discuss politic issues, we might like to sit in silence for few minutes to anchor ourselves in equanimity. We can embrace those who on the other side as spiritual benefactors who provide us with plenty of opportunities to practice equanimity in real life.

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Dharmata Foundation

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