The UK is experiencing political turmoil in the wake of the EU referendum and, judging by my Facebook feed, many British Buddhists are following events closely. Here are some reflections on how we can do so most effectively.
Engaging as Buddhists
When Buddhists engage with politics, I suggest that we think first of our Buddhism and only secondly of the issues. Political debate is compelling, but it’s often tribal and reactive, more concerned with winning than with truth and likely to prompt unskillful reactions such as indignation, animosity and obsessiveness. If, as Buddhists, we hold that states of mind are primary, it follows that checking the states that motivate us should be an essential element of our political engagement.
Whatever merit a particular leader may have, group tendencies are always in play. So I think we must be wary of taking our beliefs from what we hear political leaders saying or from party affiliation. We’re also led by our political identity – the thought ‘I’m a progressive (or, indeed, a conservative) sort of person’. That’s seductive because we naturally associate being that such a person with being right and virtuous.
For me, this self-critical dimension is what makes political engagement a Dharma practice. Because politics lures us into a reactive stance, it also reveals our inclination to succumb. The Dharma offers an independent standpoint from which we can question our allegiances and ask, realistically how much politics can really do for the world. In my experience, if I respond to a political event in the manner of mainstream opinion, I’m probably not seeing it from the perspective of the Dharma.
Acting from the Dharma
Next, I suggest we should realistic about what we can best contribute. This means prioritising our efforts – choosing between Dharma teaching, humanitarian work, political activism and so on. For those of us who do wish to be politically engaged, we have an opportunity to make a distinctive contribution by connecting our activity to the Dharma. Few of us are experts on the subjects of political debate, but we are Dharma practitioners.
An important influence on my personal experience in this area over the last 10 years has been contributing to Thought for the Day on BBC radio, where I’m asked to comment on the news but told that I can’t make points that are politically or religiously partisan. What remains is considering how we discuss things and the emotions and views that are involved, or else considering current events as an illustration of the nature of life as the Dharma illuminates it. These are short talks, but this experience has led me to consider where more thoroughly Buddhist responses to political affairs might start. For me this means a clear understanding of the forces that are in play, a sense of what I care about as a Buddhist, and a sense of the alternatives the Dharma can offer.
My engagement in the mindfulness movement and advocating this to the UK Parliament and Welsh Assembly has led me to explore how this can translate into the language of politics, framing questions that are not in the mainstream political lexicon. What would a more mindful and compassionate health service and criminal justice system look like? What role can the cultivation of awareness play in the education system? How can Buddhism contribute to an understanding of human wellbeing that isn’t tied to economic prosperity? How can mindfulness help policy makers keep sight of individual welfare and environmental sustainability? What does government mean if we understand that dukkha is intrinsic to the world, not a problem that can ever be fixed?
There’s no single Buddhist Political Stance
Although I think we should endeavour to bring the Dharma to politics, I have come to the conclusion that (notwithstanding the most books on Engaged Buddhism), in most areas no single political stance can definitively represent Buddhism. The Dharma has much to say about the nature of existence, the dynamics of mental states and the views that shape our perceptions. However, between that core perspective and political issues come many layers of interpretation, and in practice different Buddhists make those interpretations in different ways. We should debate these, but we must anticipate continuing differences. That’s why it’s important for Buddhist institutions to be politically non-partisan. I’m happy to see Buddhist centres encouraging social and especially environmental ethics, but even when the great majority of us feel strongly about an issue – climate change is the clearest example – I think we need to take care that this ethical activism doesn’t become collective affiliation.
Many in the Triratna Buddhist Community , like most other Buddhists in the West, coalesce around a leftwing/progressive consensus. As it happens, my own views are on the progressive left, but I well recall that in the 1980s and ‘90s many members of the Order followed Sangharakshita’s critique of the leftwing views and assumptions that he termed ‘pseudo-liberalism’, ‘pseudo-egalitarianism’ and ‘political correctness’. Sangharakshita’s political stance is by no means simplistic or partisan, but it is certainly far from any liberal consensus. I often disagree with him, but exposure to his ideas has taught me to mistrust doctrinaire and programmatic solutions, especially when they’re cloaked in a mantle of virtue.
As Buddhists we need to navigate these disagreements. Naturally, I think my ideas about politics are the right ones, and my ideas about how the Dharma can illuminate the political realm are correct. Don’t we all? Perhaps that’s understandable, but it isn’t wise.