Politics: A Buddhist Perspective

My neighborhood.

A fair number of people ask me about the Buddhist perspective on politics or sometimes about Dogen’s perspective on politics. It’s an intriguing question.

In Dogen’s voluminous writings I can only recall seeing a couple of very tangential references to anything one might call “political” (unless you’re one of those people who says everything is political). He had some financial support from certain of the samurai and every once in a while, he refers to them, but never in a very direct way.

To read Dogen, you’d think nothing much was going on politically in his day. HA! Right!

Dogen’s father was a political official who was assassinated, probably for his views and beliefs among other things. During Dogen’s lifetime Japan went through a major civil war, a devastating famine, and a massive militarization of its legal system. One of the reasons Dogen gave for moving his monastery far away from Kyoto, which was then the capitol of Japan, was because there was so much fighting in the city that the main river was full of blood and debris. That’s how politics in medieval Japan was conducted.

Dogen never wrote about any of this. And while he didn’t have a Twitter account and a 24-hour news cycle to keep track of, it would be ridiculous to assume he was unaware of what was going on politically in his world. After all, his family and his major supporters were deeply involved in it.

In fact, very little of Buddhist literature from the past concerns itself with politics. Again, reading Buddhist literature out of context you could get the mistaken impression that nothing much was happening politically in ancient India, China, Japan, Vietnam, or Korea. Which is decidedly not true!

But I think a lot of contemporary Buddhists in the West really do read it this way. We may not express it directly. But we tend to assume that those Buddhists in the past were unconcerned with politics because everything was pretty quiet in their day. I’ve even seen folks on social media making the case that things are different now because these days we contemporary Buddhists have all kinds of political stuff we need to be concerned with, as if Buddhists of the past had no political concerns.

I think the reason Buddhists in the past stayed out of politics was because they understood that, as Sting once said, “There is no political solution to our troubled evolution.” Buddhism is seeking after something far deeper than politics. Intensive Buddhist practice requires a level of dedication and discipline that precludes dealing in political matters.

That being said, Buddhism only exists in places where the political climate is reasonably stable. Dogen had to run off to the mountains to do his practice because it was the only place far away enough from the turmoil of the cities for it to even be possible to meditate. They didn’t face the hardships of isolated life in the mountains because there was some great Buddhist virtue to be had in shivering in the cold with their stomachs grumbling from lack of food. In fact, their practice would have been stronger if it had been easier to meet everyone’s basic needs. They went to the mountains in search of solitude and peace.

We are very lucky in the West to be living in pretty stable societies. It’s not perfect. There are injustices. There’s poverty. Some people are living in pretty miserable conditions, like the folks that stay under the bridge where Sunset Blvd. crosses over Silver Lake Blvd. about a block from my apartment. I hope we can fix all that stuff.

But things could be a whole lot worse. Things could be as bad as they were when Dogen was alive. Or when Bodhidharma was around. Or when the Buddha did his thing.

The idea that the past was idyllic and only now do we have real political problems is ignorant and silly. The idea that Buddhists have been silent for too long and that we must now rise up and make our voices heard in the world of politics makes no sense to me when I look at the history of Buddhism. Buddhism is not a political movement.

I’m not saying Buddhists can’t be political. Buddhists can be as political as they want.

But I am saying that the philosophy, teaching, and practice of Buddhism (as opposed to individual humans who think of themselves as Buddhists) should not be political. I think this is really important.

When Buddhism gets political it’s just as awful as when any other religion gets political. Look at what’s going on in Myanmar these days. Or what went on in Japan during World War II. Or what’s going on with certain American Buddhists today who justify their left-wing political views with Buddhist sutras in precisely the same way televangelists in the 80s justified their right-wing political views with Christian scripture.

Those sutras were not written as political polemics. Those who wrote them were mostly people who had withdrawn from the politics of the world and were pursuing something very different.

Personally, I think it’s fine for a certain portion of the population to be apolitical. I know that’s not a popular opinion these days, but I’m sticking with it. There are already enough voices out there shouting about any cause I could possibly be for or against. Why do I need to add to that cacophony?

When some people say “everyone needs to speak out” about this or that, it’s not because they really mean “everyone needs to speak out.” It’s because they hope you agree with them and that you can help them shout down those they disagree with. Whenever I hear someone say “everyone needs to speak out” I know I’m being manipulated, and I don’t like it. It makes me less inclined to join whatever movement they want me to join.

In the end, I’m not very interested in politics. It seems superficial and needlessly noisy. I think there are other things in life that need attention. And if everyone else is busy shouting about politics, maybe it’s up to me to work on those other things.



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