I haven’t posted here for a while, but someone recently brought up this post I made back in 2019 and I re-read it and thought it was good. So I thought I’d post it again. It’s got some out-of-date references, but that’s OK. You’ll be able to handle that. I’m also adding an article I wrote as a follow up to this one. When you read the piece below, I think you’ll be able to figure out where the second article begins.
It seems that I am being talked about a lot at the moment on a Facebook page about Zen Buddhism. The subject of the discussion seems to be how awful it is that Brad Warner won’t take certain political stands that the American Buddhist “maha-sangha” has collectively decided all Buddhists should take.
It’s funny to see this discussion happening just at the moment when I’ve been thinking a lot about what the Buddha said on the matter of Buddhists taking such stands.
There’s a website called Access to Insight, which contains a wealth of material from early Buddhism. Their page about Right Speech includes the following statement attributed to the Buddha that appears in the Pali Canon, which is one of the oldest collections of the Buddha’s words. Here it is:
“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he (a monk) abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.”
In my forthcoming book I summarized and updated the Buddha’s statement like this, “He also admonished his monks to avoid talking about politics, crime, war, clothes, food and drink, vehicles, heroes, who they were crushing on, their relatives, or what happens after you die and how the world was created. And no gossip. In short, everything that has ever been discussed on the internet.”
Thinking about what the Buddha had to say on the matter, I’ve been feeling quite the opposite of how these folks on Facebook feel about me. They think I haven’t been saying enough about this kind of stuff. I, on the other hand, am starting to feel a sense of deep shame for having talked way too much about it.
Whenever I read a statement like this from the Buddha that seems like a rule about what monks should or shouldn’t do, I don’t take it the way a religious person might. I don’t think, “the Buddha said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Rather, I try to understand why he said it.
I’ve often said that I think Buddhism is an attitude. In statements like these, I think the Buddha was trying to describe this attitude.
There is plenty of material out there on the interwebs arguing about why a Buddhist should — or even must — take certain stands on certain political issues. I’ve read enough of that stuff to know the general argument.
But I have not seen anyone grappling with why the Buddha said that Buddhists shouldn’t take political stands. To me, that is a much more interesting subject.
Because when I read the various justifications about why Buddhists should hold certain political views, it all sounds very ordinary to me. What these folks say about Buddhists is what people with political axes to grind say about pretty much everybody. They just want everyone to agree with their politics. I’m sure that when they get done saying all Buddhists should hold these views, they move on to posting on other forums about why all Bronies, or all fans of Stranger Things, or all waffle-iron collectors, or all members of whatever other subcultures they belong to should hold these views.
Which is boring.
The Buddha, on the other hand, seems to be taking a very unique and interesting attitude on the subject.
Look how he talks about these topics as being “lowly.” Very few of the folks I see advocating for the politicization of Buddhism would call the things they talk about “lowly.”
The folks who argue that Buddhists need to be political seem to rate their own political leanings as being quite lofty — certainly more lofty than those of the lowly people who hold opposing views. Maybe that’s why the Buddha was against monks getting involved in such discussions. There’s a kind of repugnant elitism to it.
Or maybe it’s because these topics arouse a lot of excitement. People get all hot and bothered when certain subjects come up. Suddenly everything else fades into the background. The trees, the sunshine, the feeling of the wind on your face, the smell of diesel fumes in the morning air, they all become irrelevant when the only thing on your mind is Trump and his tweets, or that thing AOC said last week, or whatever the currently fashionable topic happens to be this hour.
So maybe the reason the Buddha said this is because these kinds of subjects pull us out of the real world and suck us into the swirling currents of our collective delusion. Maybe that’s why the Buddha said monks don’t get involved in those kinds of discussions.
In any case, I’ve decided to make more of an effort not to get involved in political discussions. I’ve decided I want to really refrain from making my opinions known about subjects like the ones the Buddha said monks should avoid talking about.
One thing I’ve found useful is this. If there’s a certain hot button topic going around, I check to see if anyone is saying something fairly close to what I would say about the matter in question. If there are already a few people saying pretty much what I would say, then I feel like I don’t need to chime in on the matter. It’s already covered. No one really needs to know which opinion I hold on it.
On the other hand, when I see that no one is saying something that seems important to me, then I’ll see if I can say that thing. Which is what I’m trying to do in this article.
There ya go!
I don’t usually look at people’s reactions on Facebook to my blog. But today when I thought I was clicking on something I else, I saw what a friend had said about my post, “What Buddha Said We Shouldn’t Talk About.”
He said, “Brad is full of shit. Morality and ethics matter. What you don’t speak out against you co-sign. It is long past the time good people can remain silent.”
Let’s take this step-by-step.
He says, I am full of shit. I agree.
He says that morality and ethics matter. I also agree. A huge portion of every book I’ve written has been dedicated to the idea that morality and ethics matter.
Then he says, “What you don’t speak out against you co-sign.” For those of you who are not native speakers of English, a clearer way to state this would be, “If you don’t speak out against something you support, aid, facilitate and even encourage it.”
This is a very common way of thinking. It’s an idea that we hear so often that many of us never question it.
But I’m not sure that it’s true.
I told you in my previous blog post that I wouldn’t get political. But I feel like the best way for me to explain my feelings on this matter requires me to state at least some of my political stance.
As most regular readers know, I’m not a fan or supporter of President Donald Trump. I know that some of my readers are, but they’re already well-aware of my leanings, so I’m sure they won’t take offense.
I’d prefer not see Trump re-elected in 2020. I’m not going to say why because I have no interest in trying to change anyone’s mind on this subject.
A lot of other people also don’t want Trump to be re-elected. And they speak out. Very loudly. Yet I feel like many of them are actually encouraging people to vote for Trump.
This is because many of them take the same attitude as my friend. They characterize Trump as pure evil. Of course, anyone who supports Trump is also, in their eyes, pure evil. And now anyone who prefers not to speak out against Trump is also evil, or at least full of shit.
If someone characterizes you as evil, do you want to be friends with them? Do you want to support the things they support? Do you want to listen to their reasons for calling you evil?
Or are you more likely to say, “Well screw you!” and deliberately support whatever it is they’re against?
A lot of folks in the American Buddhist community have embraced the political far left because they feel this is the way to defeat Mr. Trump in 2020. The San Francisco Zen Center, which my friend belongs to, has done this in a big way, as have the Brooklyn Zen Center and Upaya Zen Center. I’m sure there are others, too, but I stopped watching because it was too painful.
I believe they are completely wrong. The stance that these Zen centers are taking will only drive more people to support the candidate they hate.
They might as well all buy MAGA hats and pose in front of their centers wearing them. In fact, that would probably be more effective in defeating Trump. Who wants to align themselves with a bunch of shaven-headed religious cultists in funny robes?
You probably think I’m joking. I am not.
There is also an assumption in my friend’s statement that there is one, and only one way to speak out against something. I don’t think that’s true at all.
My friend says, “It is long past the time good people can remain silent.”
I cannot agree. I think that at least some people — good or otherwise —must choose to remain silent, or at least choose to refrain from joining in with the noise everyone else is making.
Loudly proclaiming your position is rarely an effective way of convincing anyone to support it. It might fire up those who already agree with you. But to the rest of us it’s annoying and obnoxious. Even if we’re inclined to agree with you, we’re still going to plug our ears and go somewhere else.
For myself, I feel like the best way I can move the political situation in a positive direction is to stay out of the shouting matches.
I don’t have any significant skills in political rhetoric. I’m not good at convincing people to believe things or to support causes. Whatever I might want to say politically has already been expressed much better by other people.
I feel like I have a far more important job.
Political currents come and go. They’re like fashions or musical styles. One day everyone’s wearing bell-bottoms and listening to The Electric Prunes. Ten years later the cuffs of their pants are tight and they’re listening to Talking Heads.
But Buddhism is not a fashion. Buddhism has lasted 2,500 years in a large part because it has generally avoided aligning itself with political factions and fashions.
As I said, I’d rather not see Trump re-elected next year. But the 2020 US presidential race is not my major concern in life. The election will go the way it goes, no matter what I say about it. The current border crisis will be resolved or fail to be resolved, no matter what I say about it. There will be a war with Iran or there will be no war with Iran, no matter what I say about it.
I’m not saying that no one should say anything about these matters. I’m not even saying that no Buddhists should say anything about these matters.
I don’t think there’s any danger of large numbers of people — even Buddhist people — failing to speak out about this stuff if I don’t make my opinions known. There are already plenty of vigorous debates raging in the media and in many other public and private forums.
Maybe it’s more useful for a few of us to provide spaces where other matters can be discussed, and where other forms of action can be pursued.
If I can provide a space where a staunch supporter of Donald Trump can sit in silence next to someone who thinks Ilhan Omar ought to be leading our country, I think that would be a very good thing. If I can write articles that get people who support very different political movements to look at things that are deeper and more universal than any politics, then I will feel I’ve contributed something positive and useful.
UPCOMING PERSONAL APPEARANCES
•AUGUST 24-27, 2023 RETREAT in LAMMI, FINLAND
•AUGUST 30-SEPTEMBER 3, 2023 RETREAT at BENEDIKTUSHOF in HOLZKIRCHEN, GERMANY