Recently Lion’s Roar ran an article entitled Isn’t Buddhism Supposed to be Apolitical. It wasn’t really about whether Buddhism should or shouldn’t be political, but yet another justification for why Buddhism in America should embrace and espouse Left Wing politics, and specifically why Buddhist institutions should become part of the anti-Trump movement that’s currently all the rage with the cool kids.
I have already made my personal feelings about Mr. Trump abundantly clear in previous blogs (like this one). The short version for anyone new to this blog is; I voted against Donald Trump and I have serious concerns about his fitness to be President.
I have to keep repeating this because every time this topic comes up it seems to get derailed into something that reminds me of George W. Bush’s statement, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” If you say anything that sounds like anything other than “resist Trump” you must be a racist, ecocidal, homophobic Trump supporter.
It seems that some of what I said before on this subject has been interpreted as expressing a fear of alienating Trump supporters. That’s the fault of my clumsy writing. It’s not really about alienating people. It’s about my feeling that taking a specific partisan political stance gets in the way of my being able to do my job of Buddhist teacher (which is different from my other job as writer of this blog and my books, though the two jobs often overlap).
The best way I can come up with to explain why the idea of American Buddhism becoming a part of the anti-Trump movement makes me so uncomfortable — even in spite of my personal opposition to most of Mr. Trump’s proposals — is the metaphor I’ve used as the title of this piece; Should plumbing be political?
Like being a Buddhist teacher, the craft of being a plumber requires no specific belief system or political affiliation. Just like a Buddhist teacher, a plumber can be any religion or have any political allegiance they want and still get the job done. But if you start mixing plumbing with politics, things can start to get messy — quite literally.
If you call a plumber because you have an overflowing toilet, it’s the plumber’s job to fix your toilet, not to convince you you’re a bad person because you didn’t support Bernie in the primaries. Your voting record doesn’t even need to come up in your interaction with the plumber. If a plumber refuses to fix your toilet because he saw a Vote Trump sign on your lawn, he is not doing his job.
Similarly, when I am doing the job of being a Buddhist teacher, I don’t feel like it’s any of my business to tell people how to vote. Sure, I can be a Buddhist teacher and also a member of the Committee to Elect Emperor Guillotine in 2020 if I want, but these are two separate jobs. I need to remember not to get them mixed up because mixing them up is detrimental to both.
A Buddhist teacher friend of mine recently wrote in her blog, “Once I see you fighting for the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, queer and disabled people, then I will talk to you about emptiness, about the Bodhisttava vow, about compassion.” She can take any stance she likes, but I cannot agree with that as a criterion I can personally adopt for my teaching of Buddhism.
For one thing, I find it hard to measure such things as “fighting for the rights of women, etc.” I’ve found that people often have very different ways of fighting for rights they believe in. I’ve met conservatives who care very deeply about combatting racism, for example, but who have vastly different ideas about how to do that than the usual Leftist ones. So when I see statements like my friend’s I think there’s a strong danger of one’s partisan alliances getting in the way of understanding that there might be other approaches to these kinds of problems.
But what if the person who is asking me about Buddhism has no interest at all in fighting for the rights I believe in? What if, perhaps, they are even opposed to things I am passionate about supporting?
I still would not want to withhold the teachings even from someone like that. They’re too important. I think that as a Buddhist teacher, it is outside of my job description to be concerned with whether or not someone who comes to me holds what I believe to be the correct beliefs about such matters. In fact, I am totally unconcerned with any of their beliefs. I’m there to, as it were, help them unclog their spiritual toilet.
Secretly, I harbor the belief that if I help them unclog their spiritual toilet, they’ll come to see the value of helping those in their community who need their help. It’s hard for me to imagine, for example, someone working with Buddhist practice maintaining a racist worldview. Buddhism isn’t so much a philosophy and practice that opposes racism as a philosophy and practice that allows you to see the absurdity of racism for yourself. I think that’s much more useful and goes much deeper.
So I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who thinks I should be ending each of my blog pieces and dharma talks with the words, “Resist Trump.” I just don’t think it’s my job to do that.
I’m sorry for flogging this dead horse yet again. I’m really dying to write a piece about existentialism and Buddhism or almost anything that does not involve Trump. I just keep seeing stuff about this issue that bugs me and bums me out.
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