Politics "As A Buddhist"

My teacher often tells his students, “You can’t hold two things with one hand.” He usually says this kind of thing to rebellious students like me who are trying to divide our time and energy between the monastery and a more worldly, engaged kind of life. This is also his reasoning for why monks shouldn’t get married or have 9-5 jobs.

So I was surprised when I called him this week to bemoan my current state of monastic failure and he was eerily supportive. 

“I’m just a college student now,” I complained.

“Yes, but you’re studying Japanese as a monk.” We were talking in Japanese and he used a grammatical tense I didn’t know, として、which means “to do a role as something.” Ever since then I’ve been wondering what it means to do something as a Buddhist, or as a monk. Maybe it’s better just to be one thing and leave it at that— to not try to be a student as a monk or a politician as a Buddhist, but to just pick one role and do it well. But of course, what if I can’t chose? 

This week I read a fascinating article by Bhikkhu Bodhi called “Facing the Great Divide,” about the differences between so-called “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism.” He describes Classical Buddhism, generally, as the more traditional approach to Buddhism which emphasizes belief in rebirth, kharma, support of the monastic community, generation of merit, and release from the cycle of samsara. Towards the end of the essay, he writes how the strength of “Secular Buddhism” is its social engagement: 

For all its unsavouriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged. Any spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations. Its contemplative practices then turn into the intellectual plaything of an upper-middle-class elite or a cushion to soften the impact of the real world.

This passage gave me pause. I was a social activist before I became a Buddhist, and throughout my adult life I have constantly been looking for justifications as to why Buddhist practice is complimentary to social activism. Almost ten years after encountering Buddhism in the context of social justice work, though, I’m not sure that they are as happy a marriage as I wished they would be. In fact, I do think that at a fundamental level, they are profoundly different. The strength of (“Classical?”) Buddhist practice is, as I see it, the encouragement to turn inwards and to let go. Whether we are taking a Theravaden approach and speaking of relinquishing desire and attachment, or if we are trying to “drop off body and mind” and “forget the self” as it’s articulated in the Zen tradition, there is a common theme of renunciation— letting go of our narrow perspective and self-identification. From the “Classical Buddhism” perspective, letting go is freedom itself. 

Social activism often requires the opposite: it asks that we engage, that we don’t let go, that we find ways to channel our very understandable responses of rage and anger in the face of brutality and unjust systems into meaningful work, that we look outward and around at our world and examine what is not right, what is harmful, and the best ways to redress these inequalities. This often means very tangible, practical things like reading history, writing letters, boycotting, attending workshops, speaking up for others when it is uncomfortable or dangerous to do so, giving up personal privileges, etc. 

Earlier this year after the events in Ferguson, I felt moved to try to articulate why Buddhist practice had to necessarily include political action, but I wonder if my own writing is the result of wishful thinking. Whereas ten years ago I sought to seek a way to rationalize this contradiction or to reinterpret the fundamental bedrock of Buddhist practice to be something other than letting go of craving or a narrow sense of self, these days I don’t think this is so necessary. I’m starting to think that these two things— Buddhism and political action— can exist as dissimilar, contradictory things and still be effective, radical practices. 

What happens when we engage with politics “as a Buddhist?” The extreme would be the current situation in Myanmar, where hard-line Buddhist monks (monk politicians?) just passed a law prohibiting Buddhist women from marrying Muslims. I’m wary of any kind of political action done in the name of religion, whether that religion is my own or someone else’s. A less extreme version might be using Buddhist principles of compassion and empathy to engage in political activism or social justice work— which I have spent many years trying to do, because I longed so deeply for the spiritual practice that nourished me to match the political ideals I held. 

Still, If I am speaking truthfully I have to say that when Buddhism tries to be anything other than Buddhism, it loses its primary strength as a radical, profound, existentially liberating practice. And similarly, if we articulate social justice work in terms of dharma practice, this has the potential to dilute the kind of social engagement required to dismantle fundamentally oppressive systems of power. When anti-oppression work is articulated to white people as a way to help or augment our spiritual practice, this puts the focus back on white peoples' needs. Rather than explaining why social justice work helps everyone feel better, or explaining why Buddhist principles necessitate racial equality, for example, I wonder if it might be more useful to encourage white folk to love justice for its own sake, whether or not this kind of justice conforms with our notions of what we want Buddhist practice to look like. 

I am wary of engaging in political action “as a Buddhist” because I think it is more effective to engage in political action first as an intelligent, independently thinking, ethical and empathetic human being. I’m starting to think that ethics based on external reference points like religion or philosophy will always be inferior to the ethical system I cultivate myself through thinking, reflection, and cultivating empathy. Buddhism offers an incredibly sophisticated and profound ethical system— which is why I was attracted to it in the first place—, but it falls short of addressing contemporary issues like global warming, systematic racism and sexism, the threat of nuclear warfare, etc. While it might be tempting to say that we should adapt Buddhism to address these issues or create a new kind of Buddhism altogether (“Secular Buddhism?”) I think it might be possible simply to strengthen our internal ethical muscles through reading, independent thinking, self-reflection, and empathy, while continuing to practice renunciation and meditation in the spirit of the historical Buddha. I say “it might be possible” because this is a motivation I have only articulated to myself very recently. It sounds nice, but I’m not sure yet what that would look like.

I’ve found it important personally to clarify what Buddhist practice has been historically and then, how this historical precedent can carry into the present moment. This is not loyalty for the sake of loyalty but for the sake of clarity, which is as close as I can come these days to “truth.” Clarifying what Buddhism has been in the past and understanding the profundity of the historical Buddha’s call to renunciation, as well as the traditions that developed from that is important because otherwise I am engaging with a fantasy. Still, honoring the profundity and simplicity (and difficulty!) of the Buddha’s core message in no way diminishes my ability— and obligation— to engage socially as an intelligent adult living in a global society. It’s just that I'm starting to think they are actually entirely different things. Whether this means I am, like my teacher says, trying to juggle two things in one hand, or whether I am strengthening my ability to use both hands— as all humans must do in order to move through life with dexterity and ease— I am not sure.


  1. Politically, you can go any way you want with buddhism as long as you're well intentioned. So many "engaged buddhists", simply repackage the secular ideological positions they were already committed to in religious wrappings, and then go slagging off anyone who disagrees with them as unenlightened or not "real" buddhists. But why should that be? These days it's typically a left-wing thing, but I suppose it could've been (and maybe once upon a time was) just the other way around if more conservative right-wingers had taken up the Dharma. Too bad, I certainly would've felt more at home :-p

  2. I love the independence of your thinking- thanks.

    I just finished a piece where I examine "eating when hungry, sleeping when tired"; pretty much anything can be related to practice, but what does "eating when hungry, sleeping when tired" have to do with it (couldn't it be "eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, boycotting when called upon", fer instance)?


    I think it is possible to be traceless and politically active, it's got to do with where the action comes from. Maybe it's just not possible to be traceless in social activism while representing a religion?

  3. Thank you for this! I have really been struggling the past 6 or 8 months watching the zen center I'm connected with move towards very vocal and social activism, particularly at dharma talks. Statements like, "As Buddhists we should be_____, and, "as Buddhists and especially if you're white, you need to be looking deeply at your own racism and white privilege." This isn't about not being willing to look honestly at where I'm at with people of color. But, when I'm at a dharma talk and the person speaking is, I feel, in a position of authority, I get the strong impression I'm supposed to be supporting some kind of buddhist party line. It's made me feel like I want to distance myself from the center. The interesting and probably more important piece is that creating a strong practice outside the confines of the center, I see clearly more and more and always, zazen is the deepest, most profound social action I can take. The cushion shows me the way.
    in gassho
    Mary Myotai

    1. Mary,
      I don't know; it's tricky, isn't it? I'm not sure how I would react to that kind of situation in America because I have never really practiced Zen there. I suppose if race came up in a Zen center I would in fact want to talk about it. What I wrote was probably a reaction to the many years I have spent dealing with prejudice and racism here in Japan -- both how frustrating it is to have Japanese monks and nuns ignore racism exists and claim that it is irrelevant to practice, and also how grateful I am to have people constantly encouraging me to go beyond myself. I think both realities are true but create a kind of cognitive dissonance when I try to put them together.

    2. Hi Mary, Gesshin, and everyone--
      I have a friend who chose to part ways with the Shambhala group he was a part of over the same thing. I think that's very sad. Politics, at least in a modern constitutional republic or any other ostensibly democratic form where differing and competing views are given a voice, is by its very nature dualistic and divisive. This is a good thing in terms of political discourse and freedom of expression, but it is corrosive in the context of a deeper group practice, be it Zen or anything else.

      In short, I think politics is part of the relative domain, not the absolute, and when introduced into a practice group and elevated to a position of importance on a par with practice itself, the result is predictable. The people who agree with the particular set of opinions being advocated will embrace it, and those who do not or are simply uncomfortable with the adulteration will be alienated.

      I think it is perfectly fine for a Buddhist or any other spiritual/religious/philosophical practitioner to express themselves politically and to be motivated and informed by their practice in doing so. However, one must be careful not to allow one's political opinions or the expression of them through social activism etc. to alienate oneself from everyone and everything else. It is all to easy to "other" people or situations with whom you vehemently disagree. It is important to remember that reality encompasses politics; politics does not encompass reality.

      Braxton Howle

    3. Thank you Braxton, this really helps me. Most importantly, this conversation reminds me how important and how much I love my practice. And, I choose to not allow what's being said at my sangha to alienate me from the teachings. I have my own voice and at some point, I will attempt to articulate it. I don't require a debate, there's no right point of view.
      in gassho

  4. Hello,
    Never forget to remember, "not two, not one".
    Distinctions are good fun. Gassho

  5. If dharma study and practice is meant to get to the source of suffering, and advocacy work is done to relieve suffering, it would seem that two hands were holding one goal.

    1. I agree, in a way; for me there's also something about cutting through delusion to get to truth. But personally I want to view "black lives matter" as a human rights issue, not a practice opportunity. All people should understand that black lives matter- not just Buddhists.

  6. just pre ordered this book by teacher Thanissara Time to Stand Up

  7. "Before you can vow to save others, you need to save the sentient beings in your mind. If you have liberated your own mind, even if you do not vow to save others, you are doing it just by being around."

    Shodo Harada Roshi


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down