Buddhism is Apolitical? (Or, Stop Trying to Wiggle Out of the Damn Koan!)

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:

1) Emptiness

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.

59 thoughts on “Buddhism is Apolitical? (Or, Stop Trying to Wiggle Out of the Damn Koan!)

  1. Thanks for this thought provoking essay. I don’t agree with much of it and certainly don’t agree with the dismissive way in which it was delivered. But, maybe there something to look at in my reaction to it. _/\_

    • Thank you – the internet brings out the worst in people and I’m not at all immune. The Facebook snark leaked in here after a couple days of being snarked at there… such an important venue for conversation, and so easy for us to be at our worst in it. My apologies. I feel fierce on this but will try harder to moderate the snark.

      • Bows to you, Jiryu. Online communication can be troublesome, for sure. But, I agree, it’s good to keep talking when possible. When I feel strongly about something, the warning bells go off. I begin to wonder what I might be missing. Thanks again for your post.

  2. Jiryu Mark wrote: “First, let’s just be clear that Buddhist doctrine is about two things and only two things.”
    I was taught that those two things are dukkha and the end of dukkha. Emptiness and the Precepts are only a part of that equation. To be honest, the whole thing kind of falls apart from there, imho. Still worth talking about though! Grind, grind, grind… 🙂

    • When I read Jiryu’s piece, I had the same reaction: The Buddha taught two things: suffering and the liberation from suffering. The teaching on emptiness (or more precisely empty of inherent existence) is meant to be an antidote to the deeply ingrained habitual delusion of seeing dharmas (i.e. moments of experience) as have greater durability and solidity than they actually possess.

      • Yes I agree, but maybe I shouldn’t get too bogged down on that. I don’t know. It seemed to me like a curious point of view and made it hard to for me to go forward with article, with that as the starting point.

  3. It’s not that Zen or Buddhism is apolitical, its that the practice of zazen and a life based on vow and repentance (precepts) is radically political, in and of itself.

  4. Jiryu, I am not interested in the details of which teachings you used to explain this situation. I’m totally grateful that you have addressed it from the precepts. Sharing widely.

  5. I have suggested recently that discussions among buddh-ists about the election have tended to get bogged down and confused by the failure of any side to distinguish, adequately, what is political from what is partisan, but who conflate them instead. What is that ball you are about to throw at that person, which you have made from mud and snow. A mudball or a snowball, and is it wise to throw it under any circumstances since no matter your intention — be it to play war or to make war — there is a probability, at least, of generating misunderstanding but also of doing harm. The same applies, I think, to the many promiscuous invocations we see of *emptiness* in what is little more than a *detour* sign along the path of the present moment — either as a ploy for elevating the ism above the buddh or for stimulating a trance.

    Furthermore, if buddhism must be about two and only two things, I prefer that it be a dialogue BOTH about [the causes and conditions of] suffering AND [the causes and conditions of] the cessation of suffering… such as Gautama had with Mara… wherein he never took any stance against Mara at all, but merely touched the ground.

    The problem I am still having both with the SFZC statement, and your alternative, Jiryu, is that the SFZC statement promulgates an aloofness that is avoiding any dialogue with Mara and yours is setting up a partisan opposition to him armed with the sword of emptiness at the end of one arm and the shield of precepts at the end of the other.

    In neither case do I see anyone — not SFZC nor you — simply touching the ground upon which both the buddha and mara are sitting in dialogue about governance from equally coherent if opposite ways of constructing reality.

    I would suggest that being against mara’s divisive narcissism does not embody emptiness and does not produce the opposite at all, but rather merely affirms Mara’s view and the proliferation of entities.

    Furthermore, I would suggest that the precepts flower out of constant practice and not the reverse — now I understand that may sound kinda wild but that is why my teacher named me “Wild Spirit, Precept Flower” and why I avow that the resolution to the challenges of this particular historical epoch consists not of standing apart from Mara or pretending superiority, but in touching the ground upon which he stands wherever he stands, both in one’s own mind and (most usefully) in the marketplaces of life in general where one can actually dialogue with all beings — actually smelling the incense of their own lives — that one purports to be saving.

    The Spirit Rock statement of values succeeds in this… or is neither detour nor cul de sac, at least.

  6. Interesting, thanks. Can a Republican be a Zen Buddhist? Do you know any in your sangha that would own up to it? A little like preaching to the choir.

      • Thanks Jiryu. I appreciate your openness to other viewpoints.

        I was going to comment that article and had even started writing my own article per their open call, but have not had the energy to do it yet.

        I really do enjoy your blog and your book. I realize we aren’t going to see eye to eye on everything. But I enjoy dialogue and debates, so that’s good for me.

      • Thank you – I’ve learned and am learning a lot from all of this. It’s hard to express without undermining my “true” perspective, and my commitment to it, but in secret here now I’ll confess that I really don’t believe much of what I think. Without views being expressed, there’s no conversation, that’s all.

    • Welcome. Even though we have different views, we can all sit in the same zendo, practicing the precepts. If we don’t have the precepts, then we really don’t have a practice either. Eihei-ji and Shoji-ji both belong. Some of us bow one way, some of us bow the other. This is San Francisco.

      • We definitely can sit in the same zendo and practice the precepts. But I would rather not belong to a zendo where the majority of teachers and students openly and continually discuss their political views. It would alienate me.

        I’m pretty sure I’m the only republican that attends my zendo. But I always feel welcome because it rarely comes up.

      • tysondav, I wouldn’t go to that zendo either…I get bored and frustrated talking about politics all the time…but sometimes, like right now, it is OK…have a good Saturday

  7. Thanks so much for this, Jiryu. It’s thoroughly argued and has the spirit of Zen. This year reminds me of the days when Quakers and other Protestants opposed slavery in the US. I hope we’re all glad those churches engaged in politics.


  8. ” 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.”

    This is the exact problem and you have used a point to prove why Buddhism SHOULD be apolitical. The history of Buddhism in Asia sadly was intertwined with politics and power. Buddhism rose and fell at the whims of the emperors and shoguns. They had to be political–they didn’t have a choice. But I don’t remember any of the Patriarchs discussing politics in their writing.

    You can “resist Trump” all you want. You don’t have to be Buddhist to do that. Don’t speak for me though because I am Buddhist. But the fact that I’m Buddhist has nothing to do with me liking or disliking Trump. And quite honestly, so far, he hasn’t done anything that needs resisting (other than tweeting about the ratings of The Apprentice).

    And by the way, why weren’t you resisting Obama when he was bombing innocents in the Middle East? Or allowing big banks to run recklessly over US citizens? My guess is because he was a liberal democrat, not an evil conservative republican.

    • Manjushri’s sword has two sides. Everyone is accountable for his or her actions. That includes Trump. That includes Obama. That includes me and you. That includes everything in the ten directions,

  9. Jiryu if passion is arising for you then that is your practice. It’s neither right or wrong, just use it in accordance with the precepts. For me personally my practice is the patient acceptance of non-arisen dbarmas.

  10. Jiryu,

    I think it goes without saying that I appreciate you and your activity in the world, but I do believe that politicizing religion does harm to her purity and inclusivity. In other words technically your thesis that SFZC should resist Trump is repulsive in the purest sense of the word.

    1)An apolitical approach may not be a non-position but it is certainly less of a position than Trump is Satan. Now you mention that by not opposing Trump you are tacitly supporting his divisiveness and thus alienating all of his victims. This is fallacious. Refusing to protect the “oppressed,” excuse me if I giggle, supports the oppressor if and only if you do not have any countervailing reason to remain quiet. But the countervailing reason to remain quiet is very strong; by SFZC formally taking a lefty-lib position they are “potentially,” alienating half of our population, this is even more so when you insist that Trump is Satan. Think about the future of an American Soto Zen Buddhism that was formally lefty-lib. Now I know you can school me on how emptiness of view is not achieved by non-view but that misses my central point; The more you demonize X the more you demonize and thus alienate supporters of X, note not all of the the supporters of Trump support his rhetoric, just his official policies.
    2)You argue that Trump is an elephant sitting on the tail of a mouse. First I would like to make an important but seemingly hair-splitting point. Even if this is true it may not be the case that demonizing the elephant is the correct approach. In my opinion the purpose of religion and the way in which she effects the most change is by inculcating and empowering her followers to be agents of love which leads to salvation. By alienating much of the population you disempower her and thereby prevent lions from attacking the real elephant, and by the way what is the real elephant in the room? Conservatism is not fucking Nazism or Slavery.
    3)You have still not argued effectively that conservatism is Satan. I give to the poor, try to volunteer at soup kitchens and I’m still a conservative, see I said it and did not vanish! I believe in a strong American military, the likes of which destroyed Nazism, a bustling capitalist economy, the likes of which defeated communist and fascist Russia, a strong border which keeps us safe and keeps our foreign workers paying taxes and allows us to prune our citizenship to make America great again, and while I firmly oppose the suggestion that we should prevent Muslims from entering our country I do understand some of the fear, and I have yet to embrace the Devil. Do I believe that Americans should “grab women by the pussy,” well no but that’s just Trump being an idiot, not quite Slavery.

    With reverence,


    • Well – I didn’t notice Jiryu saying Trump is Satan. I do think that sometimes we make a choice between alienating the rich, straight, capitalist, homophobic, racist, etc – versus alienating the poor, Muslim, LGBT, people of color, etc. It’s good if you can make everyone welcome, but always be aware of the choice. (I was once interim teacher of a sangha that, while happy to accept me as Lesbian, was unwilling to make even a tiny stance in support of gay rights. I definitely did not feel welcome. I had no problem with sangha members who had political differences, but the liberal members who insisted that we could not speak up were a problem for me.

    • Sexual assault is illegal and joking about it is unacceptable. Fascism in America is also unacceptable. We must repspond from a place of compassion, and I applaud your recognition of our constitutional right to freedom of religion. Sometimes saying no to something really means saying yes to it and responding appropriately.

  11. I have only one problem here. There is actually a reason to not say Trump’s name if you are preaching or working with your Temple in an official capacity – and that’s the IRS. IRS policies prevent churches endorsing or opposing candidates directly. So, as a Buddhist Priest/Monk/Whatever, if you are speaking during services and obviously representing your church, then you’re not supposed to advocate for/against a candidate, or you risk your organizations Tax Status as a Church.

    That argument has nothing to do with Buddhism though, and everything to do with the IRS’s rules. If you’re out working/speaking on your own behalf and not representing a Temple – then preach on, my brother!


    • Both this blog post and the previous blog post titled “All Are Welcome At San Francisco Zen Center! (…to join us in resisting Trump)” do not evince an understanding of the rules for nonprofit organizations in the United States. San Francisco Zen Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. If SFZC wants to make opposition to Trump an explicit part of its agenda, it should set up a separate 501(c)(4) nonprofit to do that, just as the Quakers do (and other politically active religious organizations do). The Quakers have a separate 501(c)(4) civic organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, set up for political lobbying. The IRS rules do not mean that “Buddhist institutions can’t be political.” But the rules require some separation between religious Buddhist institutions and political Buddhist institutions.

  12. The mind of Buddha is not neutral with regard to what is misguided. I recommend everyone realize the mind of Buddha and take flight on the wings of wisdom and compassion.

    Bucky Fuller used to say what was valuable about an individual was that they could think and take action. Either he nor I can say much for institutions. I would say institutions tend toward the lowest common denominator.

    In one book, Trungpa was referencing when Christ overturned the money changers tables as an example of particular quality he said was rather missing these days. Maybe some day I will find that reference again and take a closer look at it. It is something I reflect on often.

  13. Zen Buddhism, for me, is responsibility and responsiveness. As a Zen buddhist, as a compassionate and loving bodhisattva I have to respond fully to any situation that arises may it be a call for help or just smiling to some stranger in the street. I see “political” action as a social action, which is a kind of meditation bringing compassion, love, and equanimity and sometimes joy. Buddha said ” Whoever nurses the sick serves me”. If I apply this to politics I, as a Zen buddhist, I can bring help and comfort to those who are left on the side of the road, thus helping the world knotted in hatred and aggression. Philip Kapleau wrote “to remain silent or indifferent in the face of challenges in today’s imperiled world is, in the end, to give aid and comfort to forces of reaction and bigotry, and to weaken the effectiveness of those seeking to combat such negative forces. Let your practice go with you out of the zendo and see what happens. Let the world’s pain come into your zazen and see the great exertion that will emerge”. I decided in view of this awful election not to be lead by anger, disappointed yes, but not angry to the point of calling names those who have up set the “game of thrones” and to stay positive even in a negative situation. That is my way to be a “political” Zen buddhist. Deep bows.

  14. This is excellent and I am relieved to see someone at SFZC taking a stand. As a former long-time resident and student of the SFZC (all three practice centers including 3 1/2 years at Tassajara) I took the initiative to deliver a stack of Bernie posters to the front desk last summer. Not a one ever appeared in ZC’s highly visible urban windows, including obviously, yours. I was discouraged and frankly pissed at the apathy and disconnection. If Sanders had been allowed to win the primary (as he in actuality did), he would have won the hearts of the people and we would not be in this catastrophic mess. So, it’s all very well to say there’s no such thing as apolitical Buddhism but there is certainly such a thing as passive Buddhism.

    • This latter comment was aimed at the people saying the Buddha taught only dukkha and relief from dukkha, not at the authors of this blog.

  15. Pingback: Isn’t Buddhism Supposed to Be Apolitical? - Lion's Roar

  16. It is interesting to see how your four misconceptions about Buddhist politics can be viewed like two sides of the same coin, kind of like how remaining silent in the face of suffering is a form of speech. You also stated, “were a Buddhist center to assert, for example, “we stand opposed to and ready to resist Trump’s racist and ecocidal vision,” the people who support Trump would feel unwelcome and thereby lose their access to the dharma.” I ask you, is not the mere nature of dharma teachings already opposed to racism and ecocidal visions? Must we add teachings about the negative actions of specific current leaders to understand the negative consequences of and reasons for such actions? Further, do we not further trap ourselves in samsara by holding wrong views regarding the true nature of individuals and their actions? Is not Trump like a mirage and appears as he does merely as a consequence of karma?

  17. I think this piece is brilliant, and of urgent importance, but I think the Lion’s Roar version, rather than being kinder or better-reasoned, was badly diluted. I see nothing unkind or unreasonable in this original version, which awed me with its compassion and honesty.

  18. Wow. I am so glad I’m not a part of your shangha. And you’re a Buddhist priest? I’m a simple layperson with less than 5 years practicing the Dharma and I can comfortably say I’m much further on the path than you.

    Time to cancel my Lion’s Roar sub so I don’t have to be subjected to more hysterical far left drivel. Enjoy California, bud!

  19. I’ve been wavering back & forth between anger –>I’ve got to fight back! & personal serenity –>my puny efforts won’t help much. When I remember that I’m bound by the bodhisattva vow, I settle mid-stream –> does it create more or less suffering? This is the metric I seek to apply & because it immediately pulls forth many possibilities, politics – people trying to get what they want – enters the picture.

    Is this what you mean by the koan?

    Also, thanks for the image of the bird with water in its beak heading for the fire – a former life of the Buddha is a fabulous place to start, yah?

  20. One thing I’ve begun, kind of a Buddhist-ly political practice: I tweet wee dharma lessons directly to Trump’s inner child #LittleDonnie. This is really helpful to ME, as it reduces my reflexive tendency to get angry & helps me stay in the place where I can resist without hating.

  21. Govern or be governed.

    All notions are abstractions surfeit with vanity & delusion, and interdependence requires that we take care. That’s Buddhism in a nutshell.

    We are, by definition, spirits in a material world. By action or inaction an impact is felt. No notional a-karmic Buddha could let a three year old run out into a busy highway.

    Extend that to politics, as creatures of a system, as products of the environment we grew up in. We are part of a polity, so life is politics.

  22. Pingback: Buddhism is Apolitical? (Or, Stop Trying to Wiggle Out of the Damn Koan!) – BodhiHood

  23. Well thought out and full of very important things to contemplate in such divisive and uncertain times. I receive periodic e-mails and publications from various Buddhist centers and it always strikes me as myopic that not one of them has even mentioned the current injustices and grand scale suffering spreading across the globe — not even in a vague way. But they will solicit donations for their beautiful new Stupa project or some other purely aesthetic thing such as a new building, etc.

  24. This article sticks in my as the defining moment I turned away from Buddhism. I meditated, attended my zen center for years and was going to start work on my rakusu. Due to the political climate I wanted to put faith and religion at the forefront because we will be needing it in the coming times. As a black person I was shocked by the lack of speaking out in the Buddhist community and when people felt it was time to speak out, it was met with hostility because “Buddhism is not a political too” despite what was going on.

    I then came to the conclusion that most Buddhists would rather sit on a pillow than interact with living, breathing people. Say what you will about Christianity but Christian action for justice is a wide spread fact and it’s clearly at the heart of the religion. Could you imagine if Martin Luther King or Malcolm X and my ancestors in the civil rights movement did not use religion as a means to help people in rough political environments? It betrays everything I have been taught religion should be used be for: Justice and peace.

    Then I read that in a petition for solidarity, among numerous religious leaders, that there was only one Buddhist leader to sign. I came to the conclusion then that Buddhists do not care about the state of the world. That they use meditation and their pillows and their zafu’s as a way to reject it rather than subsist within it. I found it to be a completely selfish religion that was more interested in freeing the individual than freeing society.

    I then rejected Buddhism, especially after this article came to being. “What kind of religion would have this kind of discussion anyways? Could you imagine Christianity having this kind of debate?”

    Ive since come back to Christianity and am learning to be graceful and am trying to help people through my faith.

    I appreciate Buddhism for helping find the value in religion and faith again. But Buddhism’s quiet stance on the political landscape of the past year told me all I needed to know about this religion.

    That’s all I had to say and I pray that it was in good faith. I hope it wasn’t hurtful. I just had to express that yes, this mouse did not appreciate it.

    • Thank you, Naomi. I really appreciate this comment, and am inspired by it to continue on my soapbox. I am glad that the Buddhadharma inspired you for a time and was a condition of your settling more deeply into the Christian faith and path. Thank you for sharing – I think those of us continuing in the Buddha Way would do well to hear you closely.
      I don’t know about the specific petition you mean, as certainly many Buddhist leaders have been happy to sign things and Buddhist activists like Thich Nhat Hanh and Bhikkhu Bodhi have gone far beyond merely signing, but I do understand your conclusion about Buddhist apathy and I see how you could draw it based on much of the conversation and attitude among some Buddhists, and as you say, even just in the fact of this article being necessary.
      In a way the “selfish religion” aspect that frustrates you might be part of what has made a kind of one-dimensional Buddhism grow popular in the modern West, and I think we’d do well to keep that close in mind and continue to push against it, to really teach the Bodhisattva Vow not as lip service or extra but as the core vocation, renunciation, and service.
      Anyway, thank you for your contribution, and may your practice in whatever form bring peace and lasting well-being for you and all beings.

  25. When this article first came out it so bothered me that I read it several times. I thought about arguing against it at that time, but given the hot political scene of that moment, I decided it would be wise not to. I was hoping it was just a manifestation of the emotions surrounding the election. However, just recently I was again referred to this article, as a rebuttal to what I had said. The article seems to have a lasting persuasive force with people, beyond its just being an emotional reaction to the advent of Trump’s inauguration. Because of that, it seems to me that I should now articulate in detail the problems with the article. It’s not that I “disagree” with the article; it’s that I find it logically incoherent. I am concerned that something so full of bad logic has become so closely embraced by so many people.

    The article starts by making two propositions about Buddhist doctrine:

    1. Emptiness
    2. Precepts

    Given the position of the Emptiness proposition, it seems to me that the interpretation presented in the article of the Precepts proposition is contradictory. One cannot logically accept both propositions. If the Emptiness proposition is true, then there are two statements in the Precepts proposition that contradict the Emptiness proposition:

    1. “there is a right way and a wrong way to live”
    2. “there is wholesome action, and unwholesome action”

    According to the Emptiness proposition “everything you think misses the point entirely, has zero traction, zero contact with anything like reality”; therefore, these Precepts propositions cannot be true as they are definitive statements about reality.

    Following this comes an argument by analogy: “The bird with one wing doesn’t just fail to fly – it dies an awful writhing death in a pool of its own blood.” While it may be true that a bird with only one wing may be incapable of flight, it does not necessarily follow that “it dies an awful writhing death in a pool of its own blood.” It may have been born with only one wing, or a wing may have been successfully amputated. The analogy is also specious in that it assumes we’re talking about something that must have two wings. Nothing here has been demonstrated that there must be two propositions.

    Next is a specious argument that “apolitical” is “not a thing.” The argument for that point does not support that position; it supports the position that complete apoliticality is impossible. In the world of convention, words are used relatively. No argument was put forth to demonstrate that under conventional standards that “apolitical” is meaningless. Apolitical is a thing just as hot and cold are things.

    The next problematic argument is “Expressing the value of “apolitical” is an active politics of complacency and complicity.” The argument is specious as it declares all forms of neutrality or non-participation as active side-taking and active participation. It equates non-involvement with the elephant and the mouse as active support of the elephant in stomping on mice. Again, this ignores relativity.

    Politics is a form of thought. Perhaps it works like meditation works. Perhaps politics gets better when it is not attended to so much, when it is handled with less agitation and opposition.

    The proposition that “the idea that no-view is closer to emptiness than a-view misses entirely the point of emptiness” is problematic. If that proposition is true, then doesn’t that open up the possibility that the entirety of Buddhism is pointless? Why shouldn’t one just stick with one’s original view?

    After this point, the bird analogy is taken up again, as if it were an already proven point: “The bleeding dead bird of thinking Emptiness is a complete teaching.” Then the analogy is extended: “That’s the bird, now flying off with some water in its beak to put out the forest fire.” This is written with the assumption that these are known to be good things. Isn’t it plausible that forest fires are part of the natural cycle, that they are periodically needed, and that they should not be fought? Might not the bird’s journey be a suicide mission, with no benefit? Might not the effort be entirely wasted, and things would have been better had the bird applied this effort elsewhere?

    The argument “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 skillfully engage with a modern participatory democracy” is just hand waiving. Nothing in the article actually makes this a “clear” conclusion; in fact, nothing supports that conclusion at all. The sutras contain some specific advice from the Buddha about how to relate to government. This advice is not engaged with. It is merely dismissed as being outdated, without any specific rationale about why it is outdated.

    The next problematic argument is in the statement “no big beautiful walls.” Those walls have existed for much longer than any of us have been alive. If the officials at Ellis Island didn’t like you, you got sent back. Physical walls have existed on parts of the Mexican border for decades. To suddenly declare a problem with them, unconnected to their history, is just an indication of prejudice and bias.

    The piece ends in nonsense: “Make no mistake, though you can’t get it right. Vow to resist Trump…” It’s nonsense because it says there’s a definite right thing to do, totally in contradiction to the Emptiness proposition. For all we know the election of Trump may create a major turning point, a point from which a new and better direction emerges.

    It seems to me implicit in the article, but I can’t clearly pin in on some segment of the text as I have done with the above arguments, is the idea that “suffering” – which really should be called “dukkha” – is materialist. If that’s true, then the Emptiness proposition must be wrong, as materialist arguments depend on grasping reality.

    The thing that seems to me to be wise in this article was in the first sentence, that wiser heads would advise you not to write this article. As detailed above, this article is full of logic errors. Because of the errors, I suspect that writing the article was harmful, but that’s a more difficult subject to address.

    • Hi Doug,

      If it’s true indeed that people are continuing to look at this page, then I think your comments warrant a response. It won’t surprise you that I disagree entirely. It’s clear to me that what you see as the fatal logical flaws in my argument are just the core tensions that drive the whole Buddhist project. The two propositions – which here I call “Emptiness” and “Precepts”, but which we could call a number of things like “no self” and “self,” or “emptiness” and “form,” or “ultimate” and “relative,” or “non-effort” and “effort,” or “wisdom” and “compassion” – these do indeed sit uncomfortably together. Far from reflecting some fatal flaw in the Dharma, though, the tension there is precisely the engine that drives the whole Buddhist tradition, doctrine and practice both. The tradition could be described as nothing but the working out of these two sides and their relationship. I could offer countless examples, from the earliest teachings all the way through virtually any branch of Buddhism. And the principle that both teachings are needed is a clear and central teaching; the bird’s two wings reflecting this equality and mutual dependence is a stock image in the tradition. So if you’d like to debate whether Buddhism is logically tenable or makes any sense, you are certainly in good company, ancient and modern. But if you’re entering the conversation about how Buddhists and especially Buddhists on the Bodhisattva Path should relate to the state of the world in a way that best honors our tradition and values and vows, then your line of argument is not at all interesting and has no traction.

      Your objection that I take suffering purely materialistically misses the mark. The Bodhisattva Path is about meeting the suffering in whatever form it takes, offering what’s needed. Of course there is the spiritual or “ignorance” basis of all suffering, and what we offer to ourselves and each other there is a vital medicine. But we don’t tell the person bleeding that the wound isn’t their real problem. You’re implying this massive spiritual bypass in which the whole of material suffering can be avoided because of course none of it is the real problem. You might want to revisit Shantideva, or pretty much any of the compassion teachings. When someone is hungry, food is the thing. That doesn’t mean food exhausts suffering, it just means the person is friggin’ hungry and it’s the right thing to do.

      On the Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching, if you’d like to offer some details about his political advice for discussion, please do so. He is said to have stood up at times when times required it. My dismissal of pre-modern India as a guide for citizens today is specifically a response to the monastic ideal of non-affiliation with politics, which in any case Bhikkhu Bodhi and others in that line can and have more fully spoken to. The section of the canon in which that political non-affiliation is taught is also the one that prohibits sleeping on a high bed, touching money, touching something a woman is touching, making food, etc. So if that’s actually your practice, then let’s talk, but if it’s cherry-picking one aspect of the pre-modern Indian monastic ideal as a model for modern citizenship, then forget it.

      You accuse me of knowing the “definite right thing to do”. But you quote my line yourself: “you can’t get it right”! There is an answer to the koan, but it’s just one answer, just the now answer. I’m not sure you’re wiggling out of the koan, I think you’re just missing the whole point of “koan” itself.

      I can’t say what I harm and what I help, only a Buddha in the end has that eye. But just today our Dear Leader withdrew from the Paris Agreement… it boggles my mind that convincing Buddhists that the Bodhisattva Path should stay removed from the details of the world would be on anyone’s to-do list for the week.



  27. Historically Buddhist political values: subordination of women, ethno-nationalism, militarism, theocracy, absolute monarchy, opposition to sexual deviancy (non hetero normative sexuality), suppression of heresy…

    All of these have been features of Buddhist political thought at one time or are currently espoused by Buddhists. They have a deeper connection to Buddhist history than contemporary North American progressivism.

    Buddhists don’t have to be apolitical. They live in the world like anyone else. But there is no reason that Buddhism and contemporary progressivism have to be made synonymous because you decided to read into an ancient religion your own interpretation of “…how to skilfully engage with a modern participatory democracy.”

    Buddhism is apolitical in the sense that it does not imply or necessitate a particular political vision. Many, many Buddhists have held a wide diversity of views.

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