Monday, April 18, 2005

"Buddhist" values, social engagement, and political activism

Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers.

At this point in the history of the world, the mainstream Western news is preoccupied with the following topics: terrorism is on the rise worldwide, North Korea is still rebuffing the US about developing nuclear power and weapons, American cyclist Lance Armstrong announces he will retire after this year's Tour de France, and India and Pakistan improve their relationship while China and Japan continue to worsen theirs.

I have been ocassionally including references to current events, both what the media is preoccupied with as well as literally what is happening around me at the time I am typing my blog entries. The former allows us to recognize impermanence by letting us later look back to see what used to seem so "urgent" and the latter helps me (and maybe you) to dwell in the present moment. But what about commentaries on the stories--recent stories that have been filling blogs over the past several weeks such as the death of Pope John Paul II, or the case of Terri Schiavo, the battle over judicial nominees in the United States Senate, and the criticisms of ethical lapses and abuses of power on the part of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives?

Is there a "Buddhist" way of voting? Was it Buddhist to vote for George W. Bush in the last election? For John Kerry? For a third party candidate? Or not to vote at all? Is it Buddhist to march in protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq? Is it Buddhist to abstain from such protests? What does the "Buddhist" view say about whether someone diagnosed as being in a persistant vegetative state? Is it Buddhist to support the right to terminate care for such a patient? To oppose terminating such care? Should a Buddhist be opposed to all abortions? How about just to those cases (such as ectopic pregnancies) which will be fatal to both mother and child if not aborted? Or up to X number of weeks into the pregnancy? Is it "Buddhist" to condone using post-implantation abortion procedures as a means of birth control? Where and how, exactly, does Buddhism fit into social engagement and political activism? Is there a Buddhist moral imperative somewhere to guide such interaction?

Buddhism has been said (by many who write about it for Western audiences) to be non-moralistic and non-dogmatic. This does not mean Buddhism is amoral, and in fact, sila, morality, is a key Buddhist virtue that all Buddhists are encouraged to cultivate and practice. It means that while one may take an oath to follow certain precepts (depending on your tradition and level of committment), there is no comprehensive list of ethical rulings by a clerical body backed by the reward of eternal paraside and the threat of eternal hell. Instead, it is recognized that certain actions, speech, and thought will increase suffering while other actions, speech, and though alleviate suffering and bring joy. The decision to follow a moral path comes from an personal inner transformation and strengthened by awareness of the truths of our existence, notions like we are all intimately connected and so hurting one hurts all and helping one helps all. Or the realization that everything is impermanent.

There are some issues or some sides of issues that will seem more compaible with Buddhism. Environmental responsibility and sustainable ecology are directly connected to Buddhist teachings. The importance of personal responsibility for our moral choices is perfectly aligned with Buddhist thought. Valuing all sentient beings regardless of their outer appearance or their nationality/ethnicity upholds Buddhist views of wisdom and compassion. And there are Left, Right, and Centrist approaches to all of these issues as well as many others which appear to be intimately connected to Buddhist teachings.

But what about more complicated issues such as using violence or the threat of violence to protect people from harm? Buddhism seems pretty clear that violence only begets violence and Buddhists are typically pacifists. And yet unenlightened people who are suffering from greed, anger, and delusion will resort to and at times will not be stopped by anything short of violence. It's one of those areas where idealism and realism come together like rubber hitting the road. I once wrote the following regarding this very matter:

How does one choose between one human life and another? That question has never had a satisfactory answer. At that point several failures have already occurred. We can always make up stories. Here is one.

A well-known axe murderer has just escaped his guards after being convicted. He managed to get a weapon and two guards and one passerby are down. You think one guard is dead and the other two victims will be if they do not get immediate medical assistance. Brandishing the sharp bloody weapon and screaming about how everyone is going to pay, the killer turns his eyes to you and a little girl standing next to you. One of the guards is at your feet and his loaded gun is within easy reach. The maniac screams and charges toward you and the little girl. What do you do? Some extreme pacifists would do nothing. I think many of us, though, myself included, would grab the gun and warn the maniac to stay back. If he kept coming I would empty the chamber into him.

Now, does that mean that I devalue the maniac's life? No. Have moral failures on the parts of many people led to this tragic situation? Yes. I firmly believe that 90% of the violence (both physical and verbal) that goes on in western countries can be avoided if we recognized the value of human life and chose the most peaceful path possible. Sure, there will always be depraved individuals who will go so far (as in my example) as to make a dream of total peace impossible. But that does not make violence an acceptable solution. My answer to the scenario is a failure, but in that case by that point in the story all possible answers are failures. I resorted to choosing the life of one person for the lives of at least four. The only true "win" would have allowed all of us to live.

So is the above scenario a proper "Buddhist" answer? I don't think there is such a thing. Years after writing this I heard a story about how in a previous life of the Buddha he was on board a ship and learned that one of his shipmates planned to sink the craft and kill 500 sailors. To save the lives of the sailors as well as the save this man from the negative karma of taking 500 lives the person who would one day be born as Siddhartha Guatama (a.k.a. the historical Buddha) he throws the would be murderer overboard and the man drowns. The man who would be reborn as the Buddha voluntarily accepted the horrible karma from his act of violence. In other words, even though we might be tempted to say that killing one man to save 500 is moral, in Buddhism even this seemingly justified act of violence has consequences for the perpetrator. There was no ideal situation, just choices with consequences.

I personally believe that Buddhism can contributed to contemporary politics by reminding us that:

  • all things, including political movements and the relative power of nations, are impermanent
  • we should be wary about how we come to conclusions and we should be open to new evidence and ideas
  • we should not let labels (party labels, political spectrum labels etc) go from being descriptions to identities
  • everyone, whether we agree with them or like them, is a long lost brother or sister and we should treat them with respect and approach them in good will even if they do not return the favor,
  • we should listen to everyone sincerely and make an effort to find points of agreement and value in what they say, even if they do not return the favor;
  • we should be tireless and fearless in working to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings

How do you approach politics and activism?


  1. I would like to invite fellow engaged Buddhists to my blog on Deep Conscious capitalism.

    Peaceful metta

  2. Thanks for the link. I had a chance to stop by quickly but I will go back for a closer examination when I have longer access to the internet. One thing that always strikes me though in debates about socialism versus capitalism is that both are necessary components of an effective and ethical economic system. Innovation and competition are like the engine whereas compassion and justice are like the parts that harness the energy produced and steer it towards constructive ends. When there are no guiding incentives or restrictions on capitalism, for example, markets tend to become dominated by a few large coporations which then rig the system in their favor. When the bottom line is strictly about money, unchecked capitalism leads to severe inequality and immoral political and social systems. But what if the bottom line was respect for human rights, cultural diversity, respect for our environment, and compassion towards the most vulnerable among us? What would that look like?


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...