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!
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