Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.

Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.