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2016 was a year of political upheaval in the UK, the USA and beyond. Are things as bad as we think? Should Buddhists get tangled up in it? Vishvapani investigates
Politics matters. I inherited this belief from my father who discovered it one November evening in 1938 when he made his way home from school in Berlin and saw the synagogue at the end of his street in flames while Nazi Brownshirts cheered and firemen stood and watched. A few weeks later he was on a kindertransport train to England and would never see his father again.
That’s the sharp end of politics, the real meaning that has little to do with the news-cycle and political point-scoring. I’ve always lived in the UK where, for all our troubles, we’ve had several decades of stability and prosperity, and although politics has always been important for me, it’s never had the urgency in my life that my parents felt in theirs. But the world is changing. This isn’t 1939, but much of what is happening now resonates for me as a descendent of the Holocaust.
A new wave of refugees is struggling to enter Europe, throwing the continent into disarray. Nationalism is on the rise and opposition to immigration – admittedly a much broader issue than the refugee crisis – was central to both the Brexit decision and the election of Donald Trump. As I write, I am struggling to assimilate the prospect of a vast US Immigration Police force and mass deportations. Of course, this barely scratches the surface of the issues we face, and the one that murmurs to me most insistently, beneath the cacophony of events, is the slow but seemingly inexorable warming of our planet.
It’s hard to take in what is happening, harder still to know what will happen next. Like many of my Buddhist friends, I want to know how I can respond in a way that makes a distinctive and authentically Buddhist contribution. I don’t pretend to have cut-and-dried answers, but here are some reflections.
My main source of livelihood is as a mindfulness teacher, so through my work I meet a lot of people who are experiencing mental suffering of one sort or another. I tell them that when difficulties arise they should acknowledge them with kindness, but I am sorry to say that on the night of the US election I felt no such equanimity. When I tried to sleep, knots of tension in my stomach jolted me awake. I checked the latest figures in the hope that they would offer some reassurance, but of course what I found tied the knottighter still and I struggled through an entirely sleepless night. That’s what politics can do to you – I’m not advocating it, but at least it showed me that I care more deeply and am affected more strongly than I had realised. The question for me is, how can I continue to care while preserving a creative state of mind?
Notwithstanding my failure to practise it on election night, I think mindfulness is essential. What it means is stepping back from the rush of thoughts and opinions and noticing how they affect us, rather than letting them pull us along. Since the election I’ve noticed that my mind is adjusting itself to the prospect of President Trump, conceiving of things that yesterday were inconceivable, feeling the impact of the change and finding the space to think more clearly. That’s mindfulness as well.
A similar vigilance is essential for anyone wishing to enter a political domain in a way that is true to Buddhism. You need only glance at the news to see that it is often tribal, entrenched and reactive, and that politicians are frequently more concerned with winning than with truth. I’ve often seen my activist friends be drawn into the very states of mind – fear, anger, resentment – that they oppose so strongly in others. Political loyalties are often inherited from parents or picked up from friends; we’re drawn by appeals to self-interest and can be won over by charisma. We may take our views from a political leader we admire, rather than from considered reflections of our own, or from party affiliation.
We need mindfulness to extract ourselves from the maelstrom of the debate without withdrawing entirely. When members of the Kalama clan asked for the Buddha’s help in making sense of the competing claims of different religious teachers he told them to reject all the conventional sources of faith – which included being impressed by a long-standing tradition or some other source of authority, being swayed by what we feel or what others say, or even by apparent logic. (This chimes with the Buddha’s great insight that hidden emotions and attitudes always lie behind our seemingly rational convictions.) Instead, he said, the Kalamas should listen to people who were wise and rely on what they knew to be true in their own experience. For Buddhists, I think this means that political discourse on its own is not reliable, and that the only authentic guide is what we have come to understand through our lived experience and our practice of the Dharma.
There’s no ‘Buddhist stance’
For this reason, political conviction, like religious faith, is a very personal matter. I think all Buddhists would agree that practising the Dharma helps us to reflect more deeply on our values, and that showing others how to do this is a contribution that Buddhists can make, a form of giving. We could add that all Buddhists are likely to make the ethical precepts their reference point and explore political issues not just on their own terms, but also in relation to teachings such as the centrality of mental states and the need for a ‘middle way’ between doctrinaire views.
But it doesn’t follow from this that there’s a distinctively Buddhist position. Between the core Dharmic perspective that Buddhists share and our response to particular issues come many layers of interpretation, and between different Buddhists those layers will vary greatly. In recent years I’ve noticed a growing tendency to assume that Buddhists should be left-wing, or at least liberal. It so happens that this is where my own views are located, but I have learned that other Buddhists can legitimately disagree. When I lived at the Madhyamaloka community in Birmingham for several years I would frequently discuss political matters with Sangharakshita (the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community) over supper. He was a dedicated Telegraph reader and was profoundly sceptical of what he calls ‘pseudo-liberalism’ and ‘pseudo-egalitarianism’. We frequently disagreed, but I respected him and could see that his views were the product of deep reflection.
More recently, I’ve noticed friends assume that all Buddhists would vote Remain, and some of them have told me vehemently that Buddhists should support Jeremy Corbyn. The reality is that some Buddhists outside their own immediate circle will have a very different viewpoint on these issues.
Saying that there can be no single Buddhist political stance isn’t an argument for disengagement from politics. We should debate our different interpretations in the light of the Dharma, but we must anticipate that our differences will persist. That’s why it’s important for Buddhist institutions to be politically non-partisan. I’m happy to see Buddhist centres encouraging social and especially environmental ethics, but even when the great majority of us feel strongly about an issue – climate change is the clearest example – I think we need to take care that this ethical activism doesn’t become collective affiliation and a matter of group identity.
Engaging as Buddhists
In my experience, if I respond to a political event in the manner of mainstream opinion, I’m probably not seeing it from a Dharmic perspective. If we want to find a distinctively Buddhist response to politics, I suggest that we should think first of the Dharma and only secondly of the issues. This means being realistic about our contribution and prioritising our efforts – choosing between Dharma teaching, humanitarian work, political activism and so on.
For some a distinctively Buddhist approach means bringing mindfulness and compassion to activism. For others, it will mean going into the community to offer directly the changes that politics can only legislate for. I’m a contributor to ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4, where I’m asked to comment on the news but told that I can’t make points that are politically or religiously partisan. What’s left over is considering how issues are discussed, and the emotions and views that are involved, or else considering current events as an illustration of the Buddhist vision of existence. For example, in my talks around the time of the financial crisis, I urged people to consider the crash in terms of how craving, aversion and ignorance were playing out on the small scale of individual choices and on the larger scale of the economy. A similar lesson has come through my advocacy of ‘secularised’ mindfulness practice to the UK Parliament and Welsh Assembly, where it is viewed as a pragmatic intervention with cross-party support.
Actions, not answers
I am confident in these reflections, but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t claim to have answers. Perhaps there are no answers, only actions: things we can do in our own lives to make a difference, whether small or large. We may ask if this is a sufficient response to the world’s difficulties. But that throws up another question: what could possibly suffice? The world of ordinary experience is the domain of suffering, an endless knot we can never unravel. But one thing is certain: the world also needs principled people who are deeply committed to acting with integrity – in other words, with wisdom and compassion. It needs us to practise and exemplify the Dharma.