Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.
Śāntideva’s anti-political views are very commonly missed by Buddhist scholars today, especially constructive or theological ones, who are excited by the Engaged Buddhist embrace of political action. He is hardly alone among classical Indian Buddhists in expressing them. So last September I proposed a presentation to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), which I intended to turn into a paper, explaining the importance of these anti-political views and entitled “Disengaged Buddhism”.
I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the American election.
Now the IABS itself is taking place in Toronto, under a government far more benign than that of the Trump Republicans. And the conference deserves the “international” in its title, with scholars attending from all over the world. So the surprise election of Donald Trump will not have quite the same salience to all of the conference’s attenders, despite the United States’s still-dominant position in the world. For Canadians and Germans and Japanese, Trump’s election affects them less than it affects Americans, and there is less they can do about it. Things in those places proceed much as before.
Yet there will be French people attending, who, as of this writing, have a significant chance of living under President Marine Le Pen. There will likely be Indians, living under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose response to the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in his state was basically a shrug and a “shit happens”, if not an outright provocation of further violence. There may be Russians and Hungarians and Turks and Chinese and Thais with authoritarian rulers of their own. And, of course, there will be Americans as well. The present age has taken on a dark, authoritarian and often racist tenor around the world, and would still have done so even if 80 000 Midwestern voters had changed their minds and allowed Clinton to become president. So there is a case to be made that, internationally speaking, Trump’s election merely made Americans aware of a larger trend.
But make them aware it did. Since Trump’s election there has been a widely reported massive surge of activism, aimed at resisting every unfortunate aspect of his administration from its authoritarianism through its anti-immigrant racism through its corporate cronyism to its environmental destruction. Living in one of the most left-wing cities in the United States I see this new phenomenon in action nearly every day. Friends and family members regularly attend protests. (I have demurred myself for the time being, not out of lack of interest, but because I am a noncitizen immigrant and therefore make an easier target in these times. I have nevertheless been contributing money to left-wing and anti-Trump causes at a much greater rate than I had before.) I even saw a young student in the stairwell of the Boston University library on the phone calling his congressional representative. I’ve never seen that before. And I take it all as generally a good thing.
The point of saying all this is that I feel some significant qualms about presenting Buddhist arguments against political engagement. Especially since I won’t only be presenting them at the IABS; I will shortly be presenting them at at least one conference in the US as well. I also expect the topic to become a published article, quite likely in an American journal. Should I be doing any of this at a time when activism seems more necessary in the United States than ever before in my lifetime? When activism seems necessary even from a literally conservative perspective, with benign aspects of the old order under attack?
Well… It is true that the Trump presidency is going to cause a great deal of material suffering. But it is also true that it is already causing a great deal of mental suffering, even – perhaps even especially – to privileged white people who are unlikely to be affected by it materially. This isn’t just some vague feeling of discomfort; they are feeling insomnia, chest tightness, panic attacks, even gastrointestinal distress. This is real, palpable suffering.
And as the young men say today: I know that feel, bro. I remember how in 1997 I had to confront the way I was miserable despite having every material advantage – and how a politically charged utilitarian ethics was part of the problem. I remember how in 2004-5 my consciousness couldn’t get away from the horror of the Bush reelection, enough that the 2016 election felt like an echo. I remember how in 2014-15 I got angry at my own side’s one-sidedness – enough to lose a lot of sleep over that.
And I remember how in all three of these cases, Buddhism saved me from politics. In 1997 the Noble Truths taught me how deeply the causes of suffering are mental. In 2005 Goenka’s meditations helped me stop my anger at Bush from poisoning my insides. In recent years the comfort I took in Buddhism during cancer care helped calm the political anger as well. This all was important. It was important then and it is important now.
Indeed I think it is now more important than ever. For I was never the only one who needed saving from politics. The reports of psychological distress indicate to me that more people than ever need it now. Do I want to tell people to avoid activism? No. I do think political engagement can be a great and valuable thing, because unlike Śāntideva I do think external goods matter. Activism can be much more mentally dangerous than it looks, but that is not necessarily a reason to stop. It is a reason to be cautious, to look out for one’s own mind and one’s own suffering as well as the world’s.
Is saying this the luxury of a privileged person? Well, for one thing, in Trump’s America I am not that privileged. I am a brown-skinned immigrant – in just that category of person that Trump’s speeches rail against. People who look like me, with my immigration status, were recently shot in a Kansas bar for being exactly that. I am now concerned for my safety, in ways that recall my earlier fears from the dark age of 9/12 – and that age, mercifully, had ended more quickly than this one is likely to. For all my animus toward George W. Bush, he at least had the decency to firmly declaim violence against brown people; we didn’t give him much credit for that at the time, because it seemed like an obvious bare minimum of behaviour, like declining to spit in people’s faces. As it turns out, the bar of decency can be set much lower.
But more important than that: it is willful ignorance to say that political quietism is a luxury of the privileged. No one I am aware of contests the sociological fact that the poor vote in much smaller numbers than the rich. This is at least as true for protest and other forms of activism beyond voting: they are highly positively correlated with income, the rich protest much more than the poor. If anything it is activism, not quietism, that is a luxury of the privileged. The most marginalized are too concerned with their own survival to worry about the future of their country, even when the two are intimately tied up with one another. (And even the modestly marginalized are at greater risk from the participation they do engage in. I can get singled out for my skin colour, and could be deported on a fake criminal charge. White citizens don’t have to worry about that.)
So when Śāntideva and Goenka and the Pali texts tell us that some things can be more important than politics, that we should be concerned with the care of our minds and the suffering that comes from within – these things were true and necessary before the election, and they are true and necessary now. The mental suffering now felt from politics makes their message timelier than ever.
Thanks for your thoughts on this Amod! Perhaps unsurprisingly, for the past few weeks I’ve been working on a conference paper which explores some of the very same issues. Maybe the events of last year’s election will wind up having un-anticipated consequences even in the work produced by those of us who focus on non-Western philosophy.
I’ve found that there seems to be much to do in showing that a kind of balance can be found between a Buddhist kind of quietism and being politically and socially engaged. Specifically, work that can clarify what exactly should be the goal of our political engagement given the conscious focus the traditions we try to understand place on goals like inner peace and liberation. I don’t think the best of these traditions can be interpreted as calling for a withdrawal and disengagement from the outside world. Additionally, engaging politically can be interpreted, within the framework of the great Eastern philosophical systems, as necessary (even vital) for personal liberation. When, as you note, activism becomes mentally dangerous something has gone awry and it seems like our present world can gain much needed insight from what many of these systems would say regarding what the proper kind of activism is. In keeping with much of my earlier work, I’m finding the thought of Gandhi to be quite helpful in exploring this terrain.