The Zen Buddhist Who Advises Trump About Nukes

I, for one, welcome our new Buddhist overlords.

According to the Daily Beast, “Christopher A. Ford, special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation, who is also a former Navy reserve intelligence officer, a Rhodes scholar and a State Department veteran, was ordained in the Prajna Mountain Order of Soto Zen Buddhism at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico in March 2010.” The article says that Ford, “long ago reconciled Buddhism’s non-violent teachings with his support for aggressive, sometimes violent American foreign policy.”

But can those be reconciled?

Back in 2001, just after the attacks on New York and Washington DC, Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor wrote an article called Spaces in the Sky. In this article, Batchelor soberly examines the relationship between Buddhist practice and state-sponsored violence. There he says, “Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.” And he asks, “Is an open society that tolerates dissent even possible without its being underwritten by violence?”

Can we practice Buddhism at all without people like Christopher Ford and ~shudder!~ even Mean Ol’ Donald J. Trump making sure that our ability to do so is protected by the willingness of the state to use violence to ensure we can continue?

The uncomfortable fact is that non-violent movements like Buddhism only ever emerge and continue in societies where such movements are defended by people who are willing to kick some ass to makes sure they can exist. Maybe someday it won’t be like that. But for now, that’s how it is. I don’t like it any more than you do, kid. But prove me wrong and I’ll give you a lollipop.

When I posted the news about the Zen Buddhist in Trump’s inner circle to Twitter, a few folks immediately chimed in with comparisons to the way Zen Buddhists supported the Japanese imperial war machine during World War II. But that’s not a valid comparison.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism is a mainstream religion. It’s very much part of the establishment. What happened in World War II should not be seen as an example of what Zen Buddhists do when their country goes to war, but as an example of what mainstream establishment religions do when their country goes to war — even if that religion happens to be Buddhism.

Just as many big and powerful Christian churches in Germany put their support behind Adolf Hitler, so too did many similarly big and powerful Zen Buddhist organizations support the Japanese war effort. For the same reasons, and with the same results — lasting shame and dishonor at having gone against their faith’s deepest principles.

Zen Buddhism in America and Europe today is nothing at all like Zen Buddhism in Japan during World War II. Instead, it is a minority religion. It is, in fact, an extreme minority. There are even fewer Buddhists in America than there are Muslims (0.9% of the US is Muslim, 0.7% consider themselves Buddhists — and among those, Zen Buddhists account for a tiny fraction of that tiny percent).

I know lots of people imagine Trump wants to turn America into a Christian theocracy. But I doubt a guy who calls one of the books of the Bible “Two Corinthians” has any more interest in turning the US into a Christian theocracy than Obama’s supposed desire to place America under Sharia Law (remember all the weirdos screaming about that a couple years ago?). I tend to ignore the hysterical fringe on either side of the political aisle, except as a comedic diversion.

Personally, I’d rather have a Zen Buddhist advising Trump on nuclear policy than not have a Zen Buddhist advising him. If Mr. Ford had refused the position based on his Buddhist principles of non-violence, how would that have helped anything? Maybe he’d have gotten a round of hearty congratulations from left-wing American Buddhists for his “bravery,” and then a bunch of self-righteous people could have felt even more self-righteous for a few minutes. But after that we’d be left with no one in Trump’s circle who had any understanding of the Buddhist point of view.

I don’t know anything about Christopher Ford other than what’s in the Daily Beast article. I notice it mentions that Ford hasn’t “formally meditated” in a few years. Does that mean he hasn’t sat zazen at all in a few years, or that he hasn’t attended an organized retreat in a while? I guess we have to ask him. Unfortunately, it’s sadly typical of so-called “Zen clergy” to avoid meditation as much as most other folks do.

But I’m happy that at least someone who has some training in Buddhism is in Trump’s inner circle. That can’t be a bad thing.

I don’t think that Mr. Ford’s work with the Trump administration is in any way a violation of Buddhist principles. Rather, I feel he’s upholding the Buddhist principle of acting realistically within the actual circumstances the real world has presented him with.

Ultimately Trump and his cronies have far less power than people tend to believe. I agree with what Ian MacKaye said after Trump was elected. He said, “I was trying to think of an illustration of … how I’ve thought about this election. I had this sort of vision of being on a boat that you have no control over – you’re just a passenger. It comes to your attention that there’s this vicious fistfight up in the helm between two people that are trying to get ahold of the steering wheel – they’re both trying to be captain. They have very different ideas about which way they want to steer, although, ultimately, I think both of these captains have self-serving strategies. You wake up to discover that the one who’s steering in the direction you really didn’t want to go in ended up winning the fight. But maybe something to think about is that regardless of the steering, there is a greater current at play. These people steer the boat wherever they want to go, but the current moves in a direction that is beyond their power. It might take us longer to get there, but I feel like that is a current of progression.” I think it’s also a bit like the late great Harry Dean “Zen” Stanton says in this interview.

The fact that a Zen Buddhist is part of Trump’s inner circle seems to me like evidence of the “current of progression” MacKaye talks about.

Things are changing. It takes time. It takes patience. We may not live to see the world transform. But I have confidence a transformation is happening and that we are all playing a part in it.

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Some folks sent me worried messages after my last blog post. Thanks! But I’m fine.

I think, far too often, Buddhist practice is presented as something only for the serene and perfectly with-it among us. I’ve never been one of those. I don’t think anyone really is. Posting articles like that one is my way of trying to let people know it’s OK to feel shitty and still practice. I’m sorry that was not clear.

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