Writings | Life
Originally published on Tricycle.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve received a few emails with questions about a Buddhist response to the 2016 election. Here is one:
What does Buddhism have to say about how to respond to the behavior and rhetoric of Donald Trump? And just as important, what does it say about how to respond to his enthusiastic supporters? Does Buddhism have moral imperatives and lines that must not be crossed, or is it all just ‘interesting’?
I find these questions difficult to answer, not because of Donald Trump or because of supposed Buddhist moral imperatives, but because these questions are phrased in a way that is foreign to me. They seem to imply that there is a “Buddhist” way of responding.
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, and so on— to step out of reaction and 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, 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 those kinds of matters. I guess I feel that Buddhism doesn’t have anything to say about anything, really. For me, Buddhism is a path of spiritual practice that is about letting go of identity and experiencing life free from the limitations of the conceptual mind. This 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 that operates within me. Identity formation is tenacious.
What is the point of letting go of identity? Freedom from identity is what allows and enables us to be truly human—to be an ongoing response to the challenges, demands, and needs of life. It’s the freedom to be constantly moving in the direction of balance and addressing the 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 that is both human and humane.
Dilgo Khyentse, one of the great Tibetan masters of the 20th century, was once asked, “Why do we practice?” His response: “To make the best of a bad situation.” I find his 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 whom 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. The German philosopher 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, repetition, and refinement?
One of the most important understandings from my own practice has been to see, if only in a small way, how the world may appear through the eyes of others. To do so, I have to let go of my own identity and imagine myself in the shoes of others, 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 if 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 while I disagree deeply with those who back a completely unsuitable candidate, Trump’s supporters, and 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; 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 us to figure out how to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, not as a Buddhist but as a human being.