The political path vs. the Buddhist path

I presented about Disengaged Buddhism at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in August. My talk was paired with a presentation by Frédéric Richard on a topic that did not initially appear to be related: the Tibetan government in exile. As it turned out, the papers proved fascinating mirror images of each other.

There are two different ways that the Disengaged Buddhists critique politics. One has to do with external goods: the sorts of goods that politics provides, like material goods and social status, is neutral or worse to our real well-being. The other, though, is about anger and ruthlessness. I think the most emblematic quote in this respect is this one from Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, which criticizes political engagement on both grounds:

As for the tradition that kings obtained final emancipation while remaining in their homes, this is not the case. How can the dharma of salvation [mokṣadharma] in which quietude [śama] predominates be reconciled with the dharma of kings [rājadharma] in which severity of action [taikṣṇya] predominates? If a king delights in quietude, his kingdom collapses; if his mind turns to his kingdom, his quietude is ruined. For quietude and severity are incompatible, like the union of water which is cold and fire which is hot. (Buddhacarita IX.48-49, Johnston translation)

Some Engaged Buddhists have claimed that “Buddhists have never accepted a dualistic split between ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ domains.” Here, by contrast, not only is a split between politics and liberation explicitly articulated, but the two domains are proclaimed incompatible. I don’t think this is big news to longtime readers of Love of All Wisdom, who have read my posts on Buddhist anti-politics; Buddhist anti-political tradition goes deep. And it’s not the purpose of this post to go back over that.

Rather, what is interesting to me is how ideas from my talk, like Aśvaghoṣa’s, resonated with very different ideas in Richard’s talk. Especially, what was new to me in that talk was Richard’s discussion of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a political organization lobbying for Tibetan independence – by violent means if necessary. Most of us are probably familiar with the present Dalai Lama’s explicit advocacy of a nonviolent struggle for independence. According to Richard, the TYC believes that Buddhism itself inhibits that struggle for independence, because of its nonviolence.

There are some questions of interpretation to be raised here. Recent work by Stephen Jenkins has questioned whether “nonviolence” per se is actually a traditional Buddhist idea; before Gandhi, the idea of ahiṃsā meant only “non-harm”, in a way that has some subtle but important differences. So the Dalai Lama’s “nonviolence” may be less traditional than we now think. But I think those are not the most important points in this context.

What is striking to me, rather, is how close the Tibetan Youth Congress’s views (as summarized by Richard) are to those of Aśvaghoṣa. The two advocate diametrically opposite paths of action – but what they agree on is that the paths are diametrically opposite! One can pursue Buddhist tranquility, or one can engage in the severity of politics – but pick one. They have very different views on which one we should pick, but can agree that either one is muddled if we try to have it both ways. To combine political action and the Buddhist quest for liberation is, on both their views, a vicious mean.

I am not sure I would go so far as they do. I suspect that it is possible to combine political action with the Buddhist path, as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh do. But I think Aśvaghoṣa and the TYC may well be right that the two inhibit each other. Combining the two is harder than we think; there are good reasons why people might seek only one path in its purity.

My own experience in recent years has confirmed this. A few years ago I told myself I could be politically engaged without anger – said so publicly, on this blog – but in the end I wound up as angry as ever. I have to agree with Aśvaghoṣa that political engagement is dangerous to our mental well-being, even when we already recognize that there is a danger.

And so too I think the Tibetan Youth Congress is probably on to something as well. Little is to be gained by gratuitous, indiscriminate violence, but many political goals may well require being violent at strategic points. And one may well need to be harsh and angry to make them happen. The American left seems to be a lot more energized now that it is so outraged – even though this does seem bad for its members’ own well-being.

It is tempting to boil this all down to a question of “Which one should we pick?” – which I think is exactly what Aśvaghoṣa and the TYC both do. In my youth I would have unhesitatingly chosen the TYC’s path in any conflict between them; now I lean more toward Aśvaghoṣa’s. Yet I do still think the best life might be found somewhere in the middle – but, and this is crucial, not just anywhere in the middle. It is easy, all too easy, to find oneself in a vicious mean, where one’s attempts at Buddhist tranquility make one less politically effective, and where one’s political anger interferes with one’s tranquility. I think I ended up there myself, for a while at least. It is much easier to choose one path and walk it exclusively. Yet to live the best life one can – a life that acknowledges joy while still reducing suffering – I think it might still be worth the grave risk of trying to combine the two. But if we are to do that successfully, we must remind ourselves that it is a risk, and remain ever vigilant of that risk.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

4 Replies to “The political path vs. the Buddhist path”

  1. Amod, this is a fascinating question, and makes me all the more sorry to have missed your talk in Toronto. My initial impression is that “engagement” is a rather more complex question that the quote from the Buddhacarita makes it out to be: of course, it’s hard to both be on the road to liberation and a king at the same time. (Whether the kind of political action that Aśvaghoṣa talks about there is necessarily inimical to the pursuit of salvation is an open question.) But what about everyone who’s not a king? There is a conceit, or a myth, that only kings and ministers are politically agentive, but I doubt that that was ever totally true, and I wonder what types of political agency were open to, and pursued by, members of the Buddhist community. We have, to take just one example, the Ratnāvalī ascribed to Nāgārjuna (which I talked about in Toronto!), roughly contemporaneous with the Buddhacarita, which lays out a pretty detailed vision about what kings are supposed to do in order to support not just the Buddhist community but the vision of society that the Buddhist community advocates for. Of course it builds up to saying that a king who can’t promote the dharma in his capacity as a king should renounce and become a monk, but this is after about two chapters of relatively detailed political guidance…

    • The question about non-king political action is an interesting one, but it seems to me significant that we don’t see classical texts talking about it very much. The householder of the Sigālovāda Sutta maintains harmony within his household but does not do anything to change the world. For monks the advice is even stronger – the Tiracchāna Kathā Sutta tells monks not to even talk about politics. Likewise the Ratnāvalī is about what the king, and no one else, is supposed to do – and, as you mention, it agrees with Śāntideva and Candrakīrti that it would be far better if the king abandoned kingship entirely. (Would be interested in your talk on it, though – is it written up as a paper?) It’s notable to me that when the Engaged Buddhists look for Indian examples of engagement as they understand it, they often turn back to Aśoka – and I think they’re right to do so, as he seems much closer to what they’re advocating than are texts like the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda.

  2. Amod, as usual, you are helpfully calling our attention to fault lines in our appropriations and borrowings from the old thinkers we love. Anecdotally, the people I know who are most passionate about politics tend to be those who are most personally affected by whatever they happen to watch/read/hear about in that day’s news.

    I’ve also seen people engage in all sorts of contortions in order to make consistent their political passion and their personal investment in classical thinkers or works (e.g., butchering the Gītā by using Gandhiji’s ahiṃsā as the focal point by which it’s “real meaning” may be determined.)

    To venture from Buddhism, but to something in the ballpark, something like karmayoga seems to be a solution, but it’s not a cheap trick. Fundamentally, it involves a steadfast commitment to abandoning our sense of control or ownership over what we cannot control (2.47, etc.). This, to me, is what “abandoning the fruits of action.” is about. Without this, there is no equanimity.

    And one wonders about political gains that are not buttressed by some kind of personal transformation. All too quickly, the oppressed become the oppressors. It’s an old story.

    (I deleted a part of this post about outrage and self-flattery as a substitute for genuine personal transformation. It was a bit too harsh, and anyway, we’re both on campus and have seen enough of it!)

    • I’ve seen Gītā-style karma yoga recommended as a middle ground before, and I’ve always been skeptical of it. I’m often concerned that it gives us the worst of both worlds: we lose the joys of worldly existence while still being subject to its dangers.

      I’ve been leaning lately toward a different kind of synthesis: the kinds of worldly goods that politics can provide do matter, but they matter much less than we usually think they do, and where the two do conflict we are probably best off prioritizing inner transformation.

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