Monday, July 1, 2013

The Political Buddha

I was sitting in the backyard of my home. A summer rainstorm had lasted 3 days of which, I believe, could only be experienced by a resident of the northwest. Cold, wet, and a constant drizzle that periodically escalates to a drumming rain. It was a respite between the gray and the rain (that is what we call summer here in the NW, the Respite). There were mini-pine cones littered all over my porch and upon the ridiculous amount of toys my children have; a pool, a slide, some human powered vehicles, and a shield that was laying crest side down and filled with a pine cone rain mixture. I sat in an orange chair and leaned back to watch the racing clouds across the blue expanse. What came to mind, I hate to admit, was a sort of confrontation I had with my neighbor.

When I first arrived in this neighborhood a neighbor of mine found out, how I do not know, that I was Tibetan. Maybe he had seen my handicapped father wheelchairing around the block and deciphered it from phrenology of something.  But he did find out. He approached me and said,

“I am a zen Buddhist. Buddhism is the thinking man’s religion.” I nodded my head,

“Yes, it does take thought.” and I thought that might be it. It was, for that time, but then, a few weeks later, he accused me of being, possibly, homophobic because I asked my neighbors, who unbeknownst to me were homosexual, were participating in a loud gathering late into the night on a thursday. Well, late is relative, it was 11pm. It was Thursday however. Their affinity for early Michael Jackson was not to be abhorred but their affection for having their bass up to an obnoxious level that should have been satiated in our early twenties-was to be abhorred. I walked over to their home, knocked on the door in my pajamas, and requested, in what, I know, could be understood as a surly vein, for them to turn it down.

I found out later that they had spoken to the neighbors, this man specifically, and told them that they were offended that that was our first interaction. I wanted to say that I would have liked that not to be our second interaction (which was awkward) as our first (I found offensive), through a proxy, the aforementioned Michael Jackson. I didn’t say this. I just became furious when the Other Neighbor asked,

“Is it because they are gay?”

Now, I will leave this illustration here with this-I spoke to the couple, of whom I was not aware of being gay, that I wanted to have a better relationship with them. That I was tired because I woke up at 5 to take care of my dad, worked all day, came home and watched children, took care of my dad, tried to practice my religion, then, if possible, eat somewhere in there, defecate, maybe, and then sleep. Thats my day. I was tired.

After I was asked if I was homophobic or just a dick, by this man, he went into a long diatribe on how he is the lone liberal (meaning politically) in the neighborhood and that he felt was wrongly shifted to the right (meaning politically-not literally, which would be weird). He proudly displayed his Obama 12 bumper sticker, the blue B bumper sticker to show his solidarity with a group of people. He even revealed that his daughter was gay and that the neighbor, who once was directly opposed to all things gay, turned out to have a gay daughter. He said, “then he changed his way, funny how that happens.”

I have reread the above and I think it comes across as glib, in parts, but I think that, that was on purpose. The glibness of politics on the larger scale, at least now, is prevalent and perhaps all pervasive. I wanted to lay the ground in order to juxtapose it with the idea of religion and politics. For, this started out with this Zen practitioner, as a meeting of (at least from his side, I think) of similar faithed people. But where we differed, I think, is that he thought of it as a team, of a us and them, and that the ‘thinking’ folks or at least ‘men’. It has become this way with the many different paths. It is the enlightened against the unenlightened in some mighty grudge match.

I have seen this, in its most blatant form, in the monotheistic religions but I believe it is prevalent in all of them. It is very prevalent in the American form of them. The dark glee that I see when Hell is discussed and the oceans of eternally tormented souls is disturbing, what makes me even more disturbed is the flaccid compassion that is shown on their faces. Oh, wouldn’t it be great if they had converted-so the statement goes. This flaccid compassion though, is not inert, it is a raging impotence where they rise inquisitions and crusades, if, in most, only in their hopeful hearts of revelations.

But what makes the Buddha’s way different? Is not every human system subject to the eventual intertwining of the mundane and the supramundane? We see this pathway that the Catholic church took and wonder if it is not an inevitability of any organization? That it would rear its head in the form of Zen in America is a foregone conclusion, right?


When we look at the Buddha’s methodology to this we see a very shrewd maneuvering. I use this term, shrewd, purely as my interpretation of it. I do not believe the Buddha was trying to be as an ends, political, and that his means were for the Enlightenment of beings, but also he taught beings within a system. This system, like most systems, is filled with inertia toward change because, like humans, systems want to survive and meet resistance with resistance. What made the Buddha’s methodology so successful in his time is the development of the Sangha.

All mundane systems, governing so to say, in the material realm use a form of material exchange as a scorecard. This exchange can be, in various levels, considered also the amount of power a particular individual or system within the system has. For example, the ear of the president, in our system, is, frankly, paid for. This does not mean that he is taking bribes etc. but that by the very nature of proximity to him it requires wealth. As a human being we are most influenced, usually, by those peoples thoughts nearest and longest to us. Thus wealth even if by proxy, has the bulk of power.

However, this also makes the system, the more it becomes this way, more vulnerable. We see this with technological gains, where there is an increase in efficiency there is a loss in self agency. If we use the idea of technological efficiencies gained through a global conveyor belt system like Dell does in order to reduce inventory we see, in real world examples, its dangers. A typhoon in Taiwan brought the entire process to a standstill for weeks because a critical part of the computer was shorebound with ships. Dell could not ship anything for weeks. We see this, with even a technology that we may not think of as a technology, food production. We are further and further from our food. We can get strawberries in October but, a few years ago, when flood waters covered I-5 we weren’t able to get any new produce/even local, for a week. It is this vulnerability that the Buddha exploited with his Sangha and, by exploiting it, was able to influence the politics of the time without a violent confrontation or purge.

The monks vows are rooted, or could be said to be rooted, in renunciation.

"Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with renunciation, abandoning thinking imbued with sensuality, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with renunciation. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with non-ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with non-ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmlessness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmfulness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmlessness."[3]

In this we can understand that, to put it coarsely, the monk or nun wants nothing of the mundane world. He or she lives within the world and has worldly needs, lets say food, but the worldly drive is not theirs. They renounce this drive for a higher drive and in this renunciation are able to remove their threat to the mundane systems. This is exemplified in the Buddha’s time and in some Pali tradition communities, act of begging for your food. The Buddha lived under ‘rocks’ and ledges, in the forest, and saw that this was the best way to be, without attachments. He told his followers that this was the best way because of its discordance with the world and its ability to be able to accord with the drive toward the mind of enlightenment. This higher drive, so to say, is not impeded by the drive of the world which, the Buddhist believes, leads to a cyclical and bounded existence .

By being in ‘poverty’ and not threatening the powers that be, they were able to subvert the systems desire to confront similar drives. They were able to live together as separate systems because their drive was different. By this, the Sangha was able to become a leveraged resource for advice by the kings and princes.

I see the difficulty of the other path to this. To subsume a transcendent drive within the systemic drive. I don’t believe they would put it this way but I believe it is an arguable position. For example, Reinhold Neibur, a christian philosopher who, apparently, is greatly admired by our current president, is a very good illustration of this.

Neibur’s christian pragmatism in what I have read is boiled down to the drive to love and the drive to justice. He believes that they are not compatible within the world. The Drive to Love is the love of Christ, or the blood of Christ, that is infinitely forgiving and the drive to Justice is the prohibitive consequence to an action against the ‘norms’ of a society. He hopes, in his writing, the the individual transcendent drive to Love imbues the drive to justice with the proper lens but he does separate the two. He believes it is the duty of the Christian to do both; one on the individual transcendent level and the other in the political sphere.

While this, on my first reading, did not seem to be too far from a belief of mine I had to after reflecting on some of the bases of Buddhist thought found it to be in error. The Buddha calls for a renunciation of these drives, or at least the call to justice. He finds that this, for those that are are ready, a pathway to inequity. A systemic approach to the transcendent, to intertwine them, in a calling for the faithful is arising a knotty issue. For, as the Buddha says, with the arising of ‘this’ comes ‘that’ in the teaching on Karma. Karma is meant to be gotten over and not continued. At the lower levels it must be cultivated in order to gain the proper foothold of fortunate birth to be able to attempt and accomplish the pathway to cessation. Cessation is not possible with the imputation of ‘that’ in either mind or action for it will always produce further-like a pillow that is punched.

What makes this even more impractical is that those within a system, a temporal order, in our nation a quasi secular governance, is then in direct confrontation with this newer power, especially if it states a paradigm that is in opposition to its own goals. In our nation it has, to this point, only been in specific areas and to, frankly, to a large degree, this is because of the lack of diversity of faith within the governance and to a large degree the people of the nation. But what happens with this type of governance to a nation that was as religiously diverse as India at the time of the Buddha? Temporal government then would come into direct confrontation with the religious order if it was to take upon itself worldly issues. The Buddha’s methodology dismantled this confrontation at its base of existence which was material gain.

I write this to keep this part in my mind. I may not dabble in the politics of the age and mix them as so many have. Politics are, in my definition, the middling ground of practical governance; as food is to the body. A necessity and sometimes a pleasant necessity and other not so much. However, the drive of my life is not to be seen through the lens of this necessity. It is a means to the purpose of life-transcendence-as is this body, a body like a boat, to take me to the farthest shore. I must take care of the body but I must not mistake the body for the distant shore-for if I do, then I will not steer, I will not guide, etc. I will have thought I arrived. And the deep, dissatisfaction with that imputation will not have any reference to alleviate it and therefore I will only have the tools at hand to work with. I will mistake the tools as ends and delve deeper and deeper into the error, more complex, dependently constructed, and yet, wholly illusory.

I see why the Buddha told us to renounce. Transcendence and its drive should not be advertised by mundane means and this includes a bumper sticker.

Be well