Zenpolitics … sometimes I drift quite a distance from the ‘politics’ bit. But it’s always there, behind the scenes. And it’s all of Buddhism, not just Zen. And for that matter, other traditions, including Christianity and humanism. Wherever wisdom lies.
I try and avoid being too serious. But sometimes you can’t avoid it!
Three big ideas, and forgive the vast generalisations in what follows:
Compassion – compassion, above all, being aware of the other person, the other party, the other side, and treating them as equals. This lies at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism, and ‘the ideal of the bodhisattva, someone who benefits not only himself but also others at one and the same time’.
Aspiration – to better oneself, and others, make the best of any situation, make the best of life. Aspiration is a very western concept. In Buddhism the closest I can find is viriya, which translates variously as ‘energy’, or ‘diligence’. How we balance aspiration and compassion in modern society (capitalist, global, interconnected, because that’s the way it is) is the political test of our times.
Capability – the ability, the wherewithal, for each and everyone of us (no exceptions), to aspire, to make time for what we each most value, to fulfil ourselves in our work and our lives. Making that happen for others is the ultimate act of compassion. Capability encompasses the ideas of freedom and equality – access, including access to justice, equal for everyone. My inspiration here is the Indian economist and Noble laureate, Amartya Sen. (‘Freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value.’ Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.)
And, in addition ….
Community – working with others, caring for others, the practical expression of compassion, at a family, friend, local or national level.
Government – seeking the best, most effective, most accountable form of government, which I’ve argued before has to be not just democracy but parliamentary democracy, which it’s our good fortune to enjoy. If you think that’s overly specific, think of the alternatives, and how they’ve fared in the world. Encourage debate, avoid populism and straw polls.
And finally …
Freedom – referred to above, but specifically the freedoms of speech and expression, of assembly, movement, commerce. Freedom isn’t seamless (for example, hate speech, riotous assembly – to use an old term, mass migrations) but freedom has to be the ultimate context in which we reach decisions. (I’m arguing for freedom in a positive context, in which each of can achieve what we wish, and not in a negative context, whereby the only limitation to our freedom would be our ability to do harm to others.)
The middle way – the balance between two positions, where the interests of everyone are best represented, the balance of ideas, not least the recognition that while we seek permanence impermanence is the reality, so all fixed positions are transient.
Insight – or wisdom, the nature of things, encompassing all of the above: the absence of self in any final reckoning, the illusions we have that we are masters of our fate, that we can be lords of the universe – lord it over the earth, or other people. We are of the earth, and our ultimate aim has to be to live in harmony with it.
One or two practical implications:
Always work with others when you can. When you achieve the extraordinary, for example, the European Union, and it’s failing, don’t walk away, face up to the problems, make it work.
Balance the private and the public. And if your choice, as for many it is, is to live a private life, don’t scorn government. Government is as good as we, as citizens, make it.
Value each person on earth the same: of course we love our family, friends, our country – we have pride in all of them, but others do too, in theirs, in their lives in faraway places.
The refugee, and how we treat him or her – that is the measure of our time.