Saturday, August 30, 2008

What would Buddha do?

Whether we like it or not, admit it or not, religion (or some philosophical variant thereof) plays a role in political participation. At an extreme are social conservatives who have made it their mission to dictate our lives by infecting every branch of government with agents that would change and override our laws. Another extreme are those who would have nothing to do at all with politics.

At a dinner party during the week of the Democratic Convention, conversation predictably turned into commentary and debate. A heated discussion over Clinton and Obama ensued among those at the table, except for a guest who quietly chewed on his specially prepared vegetarian fare. The host, not hearing a peep from the man, asked him what he thought.

"I don't get involved in politics," he proclaimed, "it distresses me." A self-taught Buddhist, he was making a point about how he transcended it all. A bit familiar with Buddhism myself, I reminded him about a central tenet of the philosophy that we are all interconnected and hence have a responsibility to each other. Gautama himself, after reaching enlightenment, chose to live among his ignorant contemporaries that they might be enlightened. As such, while political engagement might disturb his precious peace, there is a moral imperative to act and get involved - policies affect our daily lives.

"I don't need people," he coolly replied. When I pointed out that he would not be relishing the organic mozzarella, tomato and basil sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil sandwich nor the spinach and pea soup before him were it not for the farmers, bakers, truckers, and shopkeepers, he confidently announced that "I will survive without people, I will find something to eat, I am sure of this."

At this point, the host interjected, wanting to save the self-contained and -sustained man from himself. She rightfully argued that there are many ways of being involved and tried to remember a quotation about how there has to be peaceful people in order to have true peace in the world. While I agreed with her, I countered that prayer or enlightenment ought to lead to action. Sure, Jesus retreated on occasion but he always returned to preach, heal, turn over the moneychangers' tables and get crucified. Boddhisatvas, enlightened beings or Buddhas, choose to stay or return to our world to help all beings. Prophets of the old testament worshipped Yahweh while being gadflies to kings. Muhammad preached compassion and mercy.

Unperturbed, the man reiterated that he doesn't care. "Republican or Democrat, it doesn't affect me." Easy to say for a government scientist who lives in Georgetown. Another guest then said, okay, but what about other people who are adversely affected by policies instituted by Republican and Democrats?

"I don't care ... if someone was dying next to me, it wouldn't affect me ... would I give my life for another person? Frankly, no. I don't care." Clearly.

Now that is extreme.

Image of Buddhist monks protesting (Myanmar).


Anonymous said...

Your friend sounds like an autodiktat as you say.
In most schools of Mahayana buddism people who take refuge (roughoy equivalent to confirmation) make an undertaking along the lines "beings are numberless, I vow to save them all" though the wording may vary.
Shakyamuni Buddha gave advice to kings on good government. He also tried, unsuccessfully in the end, to use his influence with neighbouring rulers to save his own homeland from destruction.
The Chakravartin, or enlightened ruler, is a Buddhist ideal from earliest times and the guiding principle in all this is compassion.

Eric said...

Sometimes, it's hard for me to believe people like that exist. It's scary how people can be so cruel and indifferent to other human beings. I've read a few of your recent entries and I really enjoy all the different topics in society you cover (and question).

By the way, you may already know about this but there have been Buddhist protests in South Korea over government discrimination. Buddhist leaders seem to be more open to political action nowadays and I wonder if that is something Buddhists should be doing. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

For this man, it may not necessarily be cruelty so much as it is fear of people, fear of feeling, fear of feeling for and with people. And yes, there are folks like this whose wounding comes so early that any contact with people can feel unsafe and therefore be so terrifying.

I have often encountered folks who turn to spiritual practices not so much for enlightenment in the sense of becoming more authentically themselves, but more for the emotional sense of safety it can bring. I know of one who goes to yoga and meditation retreats frequently because it helps keep her out of her body and her feelings and out of what she feels are "human" concerns. But the operative word here is "human". We might turn to spiritual practices and yes, embrace religions as a way of supporting and protecting our woundedness (and fear of other humans and our own human concerns) more than as a way of helping in the healing of this woundedness.

The operative word for this poor man is "self-taught" Buddhist. We can choose religious teachings that protect and help us in life when we deal with early psychological trauma. Unfortunately, religion can both contribute to and help heal psychological illness; religion can also both provide healthy as well as consolidate dysfunctional defenses to a person.