Update: Another version of this post appears at Lion’s Roar.
I’m surprised to have to write this post (which surely wiser heads would advise me not to), but I’ve come to see recently that the idea that “Buddhism is apolitical”/“Buddhism should stay apolitical” is deeper than I thought in the American Buddhist community. It’s also not true, and it’s not helpful, and I’d like to talk about why.
First, let’s just be clear that Buddhist doctrine is about two things and only two things.
The first let’s call Emptiness, and let’s say it like this: everything you think misses the point entirely, has zero traction, zero contact with anything like reality. Even the thought “reality.” Even the most basic of thoughts: “there is” or “there is not.” No concept reaches, and no thing anywhere at all can be grasped.
The second let’s call Precepts. It’s a little more complicated, because there’s something to it, but we can say it simply too: there is a right way and a wrong way to live. There is wholesome action, and unwholesome action. The basic nature of things (underlying even this “Emptiness” notion) is interdependence or dependent co-arising, the total and complete depedence of each thing on each other thing, throughout space and time. The Buddhist life and path is to honor and celebrate this interdependence, to meet all things with respect and gratitude, and to act altruistically such that this basic interdependence is celebrated and revealed. Selfishness, violence, and contempt emerge from and further reinforce the delusion of individual separability, and as such are the root of all suffering.
If there’s a third teaching, it’s just this: Emptiness needs Precepts and Precepts needs Emptiness. The bird with one wing doesn’t just fail to fly – it dies an awful writhing death in a pool of its own blood.
I assume all of the above is clear to my dear readers. And if you disagree, I hope I’ll hear from you.
Now to this “apolitical” business. In the last couple of days I’ve had roughly four versions of it thrown at me, and I’ll say more about each below. The short version though is that they’re all nonsense.
They are most basically nonsense because “apolitical” isn’t a thing – “apolitical” doesn’t exist. To say that Buddhism should be “apolitical” is just to say “I prefer to see Buddhism not through the lens of its political operation.” But Buddhism still has people in it, doing things. It still has a culture, and a flavor, and a social impact. It still supports some political expressions and doesn’t support others. Believing something is “apolitical” is like believing that “secular” or “science” is not a belief system. Secularity is just another belief system, just as “apolitical” is just another politics. Politics can’t be removed from the operation of humans together.
More specifically, the politics of “apolitical” here and now, as we approach the inauguration of Donald Trump, is very clear. Expressing the value of “apolitical” is an active politics of complacency and complicity. Who does “apolitical” benefit? A friend shared Desmond Tutu’s words:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
My friends who advocate for apolitical Buddhism ask with such sincerity: “Why do you have to take sides? That just alienates people! Why not just love and accept everyone equally?
<Squeak, squeak, squeak> goes the mouse. <Snap, snap, snap> go its tiny bones.
Anyway, here are the versions of “Buddism is apolitical,” helpfully annonated with how they are nonsense:
The idea: Remember item #1 above, how no idea, no thought, even remotely touches “reality”?
Being “apolitical” is closer to emptiness than is having a political view. Why? Having some political view is obviously one of those inherently false views. It’s actually worse – it’s a bunch of layers of views, starting from the most basic one of “there is something” and then adding lots of even further deluded layers of “there should be something else,” etc. These views from their most basic to their most elaborate are completely deluded, have no reference to any kind of actual world. So let it go, man! Buddhism doesn’t get into that stuff.
In a more memorable quip, someone dismissed my political and social justice concerns as “Much ado about emptiness.” <Squeak, squeak, squeak>.
Why it’s nonsense: A) The idea that no-view is closer to emptiness than a-view misses entirely the point of emptiness. “No view” is just another view – you can’t get off this train with any formulation. You don’t get closer to or farther from emptiness.
In fact, sticking to emptiness – that no-view somehow gets it while a-view doesn’t get it – is not just wrong but is a deep Dharma sickness. As Yunmen says, it’s better to have a whole mountain of views of “existence” than just a particle of view of “nonexistence.”
But more to the point, B), is just #2 above – Precepts. The bleeding dead bird of thinking Emptiness is a complete teaching.
“Much ado about emptiness.” Easy to say about other people’s suffering. So it’s best not to say it. In fact, never say it like that. We know it, we know the deep ground, but the activity is compassion, relation, the relative deluded world of people living and dying.
Of course it’s ok for beings to suffer and indeed the whole world to die. That’s the fearlessness of the emptiness side – I know completely that there never has been a “world” anything like what I thought, and even my views of “living and dying” don’t capture it in the least.
But we act in the world anyway. We save beings in the dream. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to the welfare of others. That’s not “much ado about emptiness” – that’s actual Bodhisattva practice. That’s the bird, now flying off with some water in its beak to put out the forest fire.
When someone is attacking our friends, or our family, or ourselves, we tell them to stop. Even if that means we’ve now had to let go of emptiness and descend into “politics.”
2) Buddhist Institutions Taking a Political Position Will Alienate People
The idea: Mahayana might translate well as “big tent” (at least if the tent were on a big rig…). The idea of our Great Vehicle, indeed Univeral Vehicle, Buddhism is that all beings are included, none are left out.
Part of the problem of having a view – which is why Buddhists shouldn’t have views – is that it excludes the person with the other view. As soon as a Buddhist institution or temple or center makes some political expression, all the people who see the world otherwise are excluded from the transformational and even salvific practices of the Dharma.
Were San Francisco Zen Center, for instance, to say that “We stand opposed to and ready to resist Trump’s racist and ecocidal vision,” the people who support Trump will feel unwelcome and will lose their access to the Dharma. Moreover, the temple itself will suffer, as it will lack intellectual or political diversity and will breed an insularity and self-congratulatory culture.
A particularly creative version of this idea is “it’s ok to take a stand on issues, but you can’t mention politicians.” One apolitical-advocate Zen teacher has said he “won’t set foot” in a Buddhist Center that mentions opposition to Trump by name. The difference between saying “We are for bridges not walls” and saying “Unlike Trump, we are for bridges, not walls” is the difference for him between a temple he can bear to walk into and one that he can’t. The letters T-R-U-M-P are intolerably alienating in a way that the elephant-whistle “bridges not walls” are not. A bizzarely letter-of-the-law sense of how people are or aren’t alienated.
Why it’s nonsense: This one is easy, which is why to date only cis-gender straight White men have offered me this version. Donald Trump has targetted all kinds of people – immigrants and refugees, Muslims, women, LGBT folks, etc. – and he has fed and fanned and delighted in a White Nationalist core base.
The apolitical folks want the stated attitude of our temples and congregations to be “Here we don’t do politics – no matter who you voted for or what you think, please come join us for sitting.”
Do I really need to explain how this is a problem? How this “non-position” is actually a position, and is one that alienates the hell out of a whole ton of people?
You can’t get out of the koan. It’s thirty blows either way, my friends. Speech and silence both equally fail – don’t think you’re off the hook by just holding your tongue.
3) Buddhists are Traditionally Apolitical
The idea here is that Buddhists always have avoided politics – until just now when American Lefty Buddhists came to destroy the Dharma!
I’d like to dig deeper to find out where this particular illusion comes from – certainly not from any examination of history. The history of Buddhism is precisely a history of Buddhist interaction with politics and power. There wouldn’t be a Buddhism today without its political involvement everywhere it has been.
My guess is that the assumption of an apolitical tradition is based on a naïve reading of parts of the early Buddhist monastic code that warn against affiliation with political parties or factions. By naïve I mean taking the text as descriptive of actual monastic life rather than as prescriptive of an ideal monastic life – they said not to, so they must not have!
Whatever those early scriptures said, whatever word they used for politics and whatever they meant by that (and not to mention whether any of that is relevant to modern and mostly-householding Buddhist practitioners), it should be pretty clear that admonitions to pre-modern Indian subjects about relating to their rulers does not need be the last word for us on how to skilfully engage with a modern participatory democracy.
4) Church and State are Separate in the U.S. – Buddhist Institutions can’t be Political
This one is among the more interesting, in part because it’s so patently absurd in light of political reality. Have you noticed the Christian Right the last few decades? Evangelicals can elect Dubya (and somehow squeeze their noses tight enough even to elect the narcissistic thrice-married playboy Donald) but Buddhists can’t even say they disagree with President-Elect Trump?
There is some seed of a legal argument here – there are indeed limitations on what a religious nonprofit can say or do before it loses its IRS tax-exempt status – but what’s striking about the guidelines is how universally ignored they seem to be. That the Buddhists should self-censor in anticipation of some legal consequence that the Christian Right, or even the Quakers, don’t seem to even worry about is just silly. We could be the most pro-actively legally compliant religion of them all! And nobody would notice or care.
As someone with some experience in the field said, in general citing IRS concerns to avoid politics is just an easy dodge. It’s another futile attempt to get out of the koan.
If you’re now convinced that Buddhism is not apolitical (I’m not holding my breath), does that mean there are “true” Buddhist politics?
I’d say yes. It’s the politics of the precepts – especially in their active aspect (“I vow to support life,” not just “not to kill”). It’s the politics of interdependence – which means no scapegoating immigrants, no dehumanizing refugees, no big beautiful walls. Of nourishing the planet that nourishes, not seeing it as God’s gift for humans to extract from. Etc.
But that’s just me. What is it really? The peace-making activism of Thich Nhat Hanh? The wholehearted militarism and imperialism of early 20th century Japanese Buddhism? Burmese Buddhist nationalists?
What do you say? What will your temple say?
Embrace the koan. Buddhism is not apolitical. With love in your heart, alienating no one, act now. Act clearly. Look, someone’s alienated. Speak! Speak again! Stand up for something. Follow the precepts and insist on them. Honor interdependence, and insist on it. Stand up for the vulnerable. Stand up for yourself. Make no mistake, though you can’t get it right.
Vow to resist Trump, and to resist without hate.
And stop trying to wiggle out of the damn koan.