Participating in Politics

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Envisioning a better world

Central motifs are emerging in contemporary Buddhist social and political thought. Whatever Buddhism's past strengths and weaknesses in the political realm, today it is receptive to Western ideals such as democracy, human rights, activism for social change, and religion's independence from state power.

Consider how each of the precepts can apply to the way you go about engaging in the political realm.

  • Non-harming, reverence for life
  • Respecting the property of others, not stealing
  • Conscious and loving in relationships, avoid sexual irresponsibility
  • Avoiding incorrect speech, lying
  • Avoiding intoxicants which diminish clarity of consciousness and lead to carelessness.

Nonviolence continues to serve as a foundational principle, a touchstone for means and ends alike. The precepts, originally a code of conduct for individual monks, are now being applied to global concerns.

Thus "do not kill" has been extended to include resistance to war and militarism; "do not steal" proscribes exploitative economic systems; and "do not lie" becomes an injunction to speak truth to those in power. Thich Nhat Hanh's "diet for a mindful society," an interpretation of the precept that restricts intoxicants, highlights the social grounds of individual conduct.

What would be some features of a mindful society? Give your imagination room to roam.

Social suffering

Buddhism classically analyzed suffering in psychological and spiritual terms (desire is the principal cause of suffering). Present-day Buddhist thinkers maintain that social conditions and political institutions also affect suffering in crucial ways, exacerbating it or easing it. The same forces that were underscored in early Buddhism—desire, greed, anger, ignorance—must be dealt with socially and politically as well as individually.

For example, runaway consumerism makes individuals anxious, widens the gap between rich and poor nationally and internationally, and wrecks the environment.

  • Consumer culture works hand-in-glove with greed and lust, arising out of delusion and ignorance.

    Sulak Sivaraksa

    Sulak Sivaraksa also tells us that history—in the form of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi—can instruct us how to control economic domination by the superpowers.

  • Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu envisioned spiritually healthy alternatives to the reigning paradigm of economic growth and profit above all. In an attempt to extricate fair-minded principles of socialist theory from the abuses of state socialism, he called his stance "dhammic socialism." Buddhadhasa's jungle monastery, where laypeople were also welcome, was conceived as a model of a community dedicated to awakening.

  • The Dalai Lama has proposed that the Tibetan plateau become a "zone of peace," where people live free of conflict and in a sound ecological relationship with their surroundings. Whatever the discrepancy between the Dalai Lama's optimism and the current situation, his plan offers a Buddhist perspective on the prospects of social and political reform.

    Visualize Tibet as a zone of peace. What effect would the achievement of this vision have on the region? What effect would it have on the world?