Saturday, January 21, 2017

Before the election: forget about being Buddhist; be human

This election, with all its hyperbole and vitriol, combined with the high degree of polarization in this country, has brought out powerful emotional reactions in many of us. Those emotional reactions are reactions, and the path of Buddhism is about developing the skill and capacity (through emptiness, compassion, right speech, etc.) to step out of reaction into response. How we respond in our lives, however, is very much an individual matter and depends on many factors. 

Many people see Buddhism as a religion, and as such, as a social institution that can and should take stands on economic, political and social issues. This has never been my view. I've never felt that Buddhism had anything to say about historical, political or social issues. I guess I feel that Buddhism doesn't have anything to say about anything, really. For me, Buddhism is a path of spiritual practice. In particular, this path of practice is about letting go of identity, letting go of being this or that, to the extent that that is possible. As such, it is a mystical path, a path to a mystical relationship with experience, where I define mysticism as a way of experiencing life free from the limitations of the conceptual mind. That shift may well lead to stands on various issues, but those stands are personal choices, not Buddhist positions.

Consequently, I'm always uncomfortable when someone says, "Oh, you're a Buddhist." I feel that I've been pigeon-holed and identified with a set of beliefs and assumptions that the speaker holds and that I probably don't. The irony is not lost on me that my reaction to the statement also points to a sense of self operating in me. Identity formation is tenacious.
What is the point of letting go of identity? Freedom from identity is what allows, indeed enables, us to be truly human -- to be an ongoing response to the challenges, demands and needs of life, a constant movement in the direction of balance, addressing wherever possible the imbalances that create tension and struggle in the lives of those around us and in the world at large.

Thus, in the context of the 2016 election, or in the context of the myriad social, economic and political challenges we face, I do not look for a characteristically Buddhist response. I seek a response which is both human and humane.

Trump has done American a couple of favors. He has demonstrated that politics as we know it today is entertainment and it is exploited as such by the media conglomerates. He has pulled back the curtain on the economic cabal that dominates American politics today and revealed that the Southern strategy used to advance the politics of economic exploitation is at its core a white supremacist ideology.

The cost of Trump's candidacy, however, has been high, particularly because, even today, it seems that the political and media establishments are not able to own their role in making it possible. Wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has called into question some of the most basic principles of American democracy, including the peaceful transition of power and freedom from retaliation for losing. What this bodes for America's future, I don't know, but it concerns me.

As for Trump's supporters, that is a more complex question. The anger many of them are expressing is legitimate. The working class has been short-changed for the last three decades and not just in this country. There are similar problems in Europe and elsewhere. Large numbers of people have been left behind by the economic policies that see all human activity only through the lens of transactions and take the market as the ultimate arbiter of human relations. Whole ways of life have been destroyed. We see this here in this country and we also see it Afghanistan, China, India and many other places in the world. Modernism, pluralism, democracy, etc., are some of the greatest developments of the Age of Enlightenment, but when they are imposed on a population (instead of being allowed to evolve within the population), the results are fear, anger, resentment and violence.

Many of Trump's supporters just want to see change in the political system and the Washington establishment. They are willing to take the risk on an unsuitable candidate in the hope that he will bring about change. The costs of that change or the likely results are of less concern. For them, any change will be a change for the better.

Dilgo Khyentse, one of the great Tibetan masters of the 20th century was once asked, "Why do we practice?" His response was "To make the best of a bad situation." I find this response wonderfully fascinating and extraordinarily deep. Some people may take issue with the characterization of life as we know it as a bad situation, but all of us know that, however fortunate we are, we still end up struggling in and with our lives. Those struggles arise out of the natural course of life, imbalances generated by wanting to be with those we love and avoiding those we don't, with getting what we need and keeping what we have. How do we know which imbalances or struggles to address, which way to turn, or where to direct our attention and energy? 

This question takes us beyond the domain of Buddhist practice to the notion of practice in general. Peter Sloterdijk's response is that in the modern age, we have to develop a life of practice, of consistent repetition and refinement. But what practice? What, in our lives, he asks, is really worthy of practice, worthy of repetition and refinement?

One of the most important understandings that has come to me through my own practice, is to see, if only in a small way, how the world may appear through the eyes of others. To do so, I have had to let go of part of my own identity and imagine myself in others' shoes, and that is always a challenge. With respect to Black Lives Matter, for instance, African-Americans frequently experience the police not as a source of safety, but as a source of danger. The resentment of the white working class in many places in the country is readily understandable is you consider that you have to work two or even three jobs to keep food on the table while government or corporate bureaucrats impose their agendas and values on you. 

So, with Trump's supporters, while I disagree with them deeply on their support of an unsuitable candidate, their anger, fear and desire for change is part of my world, too.

Where do we go from here? I don't know. I think the best thing many of us can do is to use our skills to reach out and talk with those with whom we disagree. Bridges have to be built, not barricades. In order to resolve conflict and polarization, each party has to recognize the legitimacy of the vital interests of the other parties. You cannot expect anyone to compromise on what is vitally important to them. Human connection is everything, and without it, society falls into Darwinian chaos.

For me, at least, Buddhism doesn't tell us how to address these issues per se. Buddhist practice can and does provide the tools to develop the intention, skills and capacities to engage them, but how we respond depends on many factors, including the circumstances of our lives. It is up to me to figure out how to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, not as a Buddhist but as a human being.

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