Extrapolating Equanimity

I saw an exchange on the Secular Buddhist Facebook page today that got me wondering. The exchange arose out of a post about certain religious communities’ anger at Rick Santorum’s ignorant claim that, as the article put it, “‘equality’ is solely a Judeo-Christian concept.” One person responded:

Get government out of our lives. Go libertarian…I see so many buddhists, secular and otherwise, claiming to be socialist and want social engineering (big government). Buddha taught individual responsibility for our own awakening. He advocated maximum individual freedom, a concept directly opposed to big government (right or left leaning).

Reading that comment, it occurred to me just how rare it is to encounter anything overtly political in Buddhist forums. To read western Buddhism-oriented magazines, blogs, and Facebook pages, you could easily get the impression that x-buddhism is, in fact, a wholly apolitical affair. Central features of x-buddhist rhetoric even seem to encourage the kind of  political complacency that Žižek accuses western Buddhism of when he contends that it “is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism.” (Can “equanimity” be seen as a buddhacized “complacency”?) I’ll come back to that point in a moment.

To the “Libertarian” comment, someone else astutely noted:

Have you read the vinaya? I don’t think you would walk away from it thinking that Buddhism advocates “maximum individual freedom.”

That is an astute comment because, really, the Vinaya is the document to go to if you want to know what the early Buddhist community “advocated” about social organization. I thought, well, if everyone now pulls out his/her copy of the Vinaya, that’ll be the end of that discussion. For it is indeed difficult to name a more controlling, micro-managing, anti-individual-freedom-loving document than the Buddhist Vinaya. Like all codifications of behavior, the Vinaya is the very antithesis of contemporary libertarianism. It is, in fact, an exemplary guide to extreme group-think.

But then someone else objected to the first comment on different grounds:

Gotama set up a communal society and urged its members to look out for each other’s welfare. I don’t think he would be a Ron Paul supporter.

That comment made we wonder: what kind of political philosophy might we extrapolate from x-buddhist teachings? Now, an obvious follow-up question is: which teachings? Since one of the favorite activities of x-buddhists is the interminable interpretation cum exemplification of x-buddhism, that question will just send us around in circles, chasing our tails.

I am not sure what “set up” of Gotama’s that last commentator had in mind. It certainly was not the Vinaya. For that text offers up an unhealthy dose of misogyny, homophobia, bullying, paternalism, draconian punishment, and outright abuse. Looking out for one another’s welfare? Sure, there is some of that. But for God’s sake–at what cost! (Google is looking out for our welfare, too…right?)

In any case, what interests me here, as a critic of x-buddhism, is not really a theoretical Buddhist politics per se, as interesting as that question is. It is the practice of extrapolation itself that interests me. What might some of the ramifications of x-buddhist dispositions, values, and qualities be when pulled out of the warm nest of “the sangha” and brought into the furious sphere of real-life political action? Take the motto of “non-judgmental awareness.” What does it mean to be “non-judgmental” in real-life, political terms? I don’t mean, how can you use non-judgmentalism as an “antidote” to knee-jerk political thinking. X-buddhism is filled with techniques of emotional micro-management and OCD-like inventory-taking. I don’t mean that. I mean a pure extrapolation.

What about these other x-buddhist values: just doing it; equanimity; not-thinking; letting go; effortless effort; compassion; non-conceptual awareness; mirror-like mind; non-reactivity; tolerance; forbearance; stepping into groundlessness (the title of a Pema Chödrön interview I just–ahem–tried to read). Like the equanimity→complacency equation, what new values might the extrapolation produce?

Extrapolation as a thought-experiment is a valuable exercise. It is a way of taking sensible-sounding x-buddhist values (whether classical or contemporary) out of the x-buddhist sanghic vacuum, and handing them over to the crucible of thought.


The Secular Buddhist Facebook page.

Image: from the Union Yes website.

12 thoughts on “Extrapolating Equanimity

  1. As one who practices secular Buddhism, I feel it necessary for me to come from the angle of my practice itself.

    Buddhist practice asks us to look not just at our own suffering, but the suffering around us. When I see my own suffering, and then look out to see the suffering of others, I fall into empathy. It’s truly a challenge to be alive. Suffering comes in many flavors, on many levels. I am not alone in this, but live on a planet with other people and animals who suffer. Sympathy, empathy, and compassion arise out of that.

    There is a sutta in which a monk is very ill with vomiting and diarrhea. Gotama is appalled to discover this monk alone in his own excrement, and gets several monks to help him bathe the man and clean him up. Gotama tells the monks they must look after each other, help one another and have compassion even when someone’s usefulness seems to be gone. Clearly, in that sutta, Gotama does not have an attitude of “everyone for himself”.

    While our practice rests on our own personal shoulders, the business of living does not. This becomes apparent as we explore the idea of dependent origination in our lives. To eat a meal means that people grew your food, picked or prepared it. Truckers traveled great distances to carry various food stuffs. Store employees packed shelves, arranged it so we can easily purchase it. There are many people we are dependent on for one meal, and many, many conditions must happen for other actions to arise until the food gets to your kitchen. How farmers tend our crops affects us, the land they work, the animals in the area. We drive roads that were built and are maintained by numbers of people. The simple act of flipping a switch to light a room involves scores of people. Your clothing has passed through many human hands!

    We do not live in a vacuum. We are influenced and affected by many people. We have many people to be grateful to.

    In these modern times, with so many people, and so many needs, it’s unrealistic, in my opinion, to have a Libertarian view. We depend on each other in more ways than people bother to think about. In this practice of Buddhism, not only can we see the many threads that connect us, that we each depend on, but we see a great need for compassion toward one another.

    I feel my own practice has led to me a much more socialist attitude than I used to have. I’m grateful for the life I have, with a good career, a good income, but I do not look at those with less with disdain. I do not see them as lazy. I do not see them as sucking a system dry. I have great compassion for those who struggle in this economy. I would like to see all prosper. I’d like to see our mode of living even across the board. I’d like to see more of those who can do, helping those who can not. We are, after all, on this planet together.

    With politics I get frustrated and angry. I’d be happy to see the taxes I pay go towards helping the poor, into making sure everyone gets a good education regardless of background, where they live, what race they are, etc. I’d like to see programs that improve our infrastructure, not just in my neighborhood, but across the country. I get really angry when I hear how our taxes are going into the military, to create weapons that kill people. It’s done under the guise of “our freedom” but how free are we when we have to dump so much money into weaponry?

    My practice has helped me see that we, all people, need to help one another more. I’d like to see the US develop a more socialist government, rather than a more libertarian one. I’d like to see more fairness in taxation. I’d like to see a health care system where no one is left out for any reason.

    Two topics that can provoke people into absolute hatred are politics and religion. Both are based so much on opinion. They are hard to talk about when opinions are different. It’s hard for us to think from the perspective of others. “Self” bubbles to the surface. That is something to watch and study. That is the practice, not who is right or who is wrong.

    While I feel compassion for life, I’m feeling more pessimistic all the time for the future of humanity. With more and more people, we become harder to manage. Groups of people are losing their compassion for the rest of the world. The sense of self in many grow desperate. I don’t know the answers, but I do feel our practice leads us to a better place of compassion and good will. Life, in and of itself, is a source of suffering.

  2. I think that the reason it is so rare to encounter anything “overtly” political in Buddhist forums is that the politics of most western Buddhists are as invisible as water to a fish. They assume that everyone is a capitalist, that capitalism is the universal natural way of life and unavoidable, that everyone is a democrat, and, as Schopen has argued, that even Buddha was a businessman, intent on making land deals and collecting interest.

    The number of editors blog posts on Tricycle’s website that are sheer anti-communist propaganda is quite astounding. When one poster (no, it was not me this time) was critical of capitalism, it evoked shock and disbelief: surely, the community felt, capitalism is not only universal and natural, but the kindest and most humane system imaginable.

    Now, I suppose it is clear from my posts here that I am an old school communist. But I don’t imagine Buddha could have conceived of communism as a possibility; he could not have guessed at the enormous advances in productive capacity we have witnessed, in a world in which a small minority of people working relatively few hours can produce all the food and material good needed to support the entire world population. He probably could have imagined, however, that the only reason we would choose not to produce and distribute all those goods is simply that we have not yet found a way to do so that is profitable, that ensures the absolute dominance of the few over the many. So, we let people starve and suffer and waste our productive capacity to keep some billionaires happy.

    I say that Buddha COULD have, in fact DID, understand this, because the one unifying principle in the Pali canon and the early Mahayana thought is that we are overwhelmingly produced by our ideologies, and we need to (and can) find ways to escape their power. The earliest texts clearly point out the danger of exchange value as the worst source of delusion and suffering, as the ultimate form of ideology when we mistake it for natural truth, when we embrace our ideologies and reject conceptual thought.

    As I said, Buddha could not have foreseen the amazing advances in productive power, so could not have thought the possibility of a communist world. However, he did think that we could escape, and control, our ideologies, instead of being blindly led by them.

    Unfortunately, for us today, the power of ideology is still too great, and it is even seen as being necessarily all powerful. So, Arnold, in the end of his book “Brahmins, Buddhists, and Beliefs,” argues that finally thought can only clarify and justify our beliefs, never change them–our beliefs, he claims, are produced purely in the realm of psychology, and remain invulnerable to change by thought or argument. He objects to Huntington’s postmodern reading of Candrakirti, but ironically ends his own lucid exposition of Candrakirti with an objection that far more thoroughly from the postmodern camp that Huntington’s argument. He cannot even conceive that what Candrakirti might be arguing is exactly that we CAN in fact escape the ideological production of our beliefs.

    So, what kind of political system does Buddhism lead to? That’s open to debate–BUT, it’s open to debate only once we start to realize the potential of Buddhist thought and practice to distantiate capitalist ideology, instead of reproducing it. From within the x-buddhist world, Buddhism remains “non-ideological,” because their ideology remains the water they swim in. Terry Eagleton once remarked that ideology is like halitosis, it’s what the other guy has. Maybe instead of following their own breath, Buddhists should learn to smell it.

  3. Hi Dana. Thanks for commenting here. I appreciate it.

    I hope you didn’t get the impression that I was advocating libertarianism, or, much less, a contemporary Libertarianism. Not at all. (For what it’s worth, my politics vacillate inconsistently and absurdly between communism and anarchism.)

    I agree with the overarching idea of your comment, which is captured, I think, in your last sentence: “Life, in and of itself, is a source of suffering.” It is, in fact, my agreement with that idea that generates the questions that I ask about Buddhism. Buddhism claims for itself crucial knowledge about the nature and end of human suffering. And much of what it claims is put in terms that look, on the face of it, worth exploring. That’s why I have devoted over three decades of my life to exploring–and practicing–various forms of Buddhism. But many other systems of thought and practice offer equally compelling, yet often quite different, claims to exigent knowledge. What I see happening in the world of contemporary western Buddhism (a splintered world that I try to capture with the term “x-buddhism“), is an unthinking acceptance of virtually any idea or practice labelled “Buddhist.” I say “unthinking” because–well have a look around. People who express allegiance to the rigors of scientific method and to the guiding light of reason swallow whole the most fatuous notions and vacuous language as long as it has “Buddhist” or “mindfulness” attached to it. (The Dalai Lama is only the most famous example of such a person.)

    The post “Extrapolating Equanimity” asks people to take some of these notions and terms and think them through, far beyond what a “Buddhist” or “mindfulness” community would suggest, or, for that matter, even tolerate. It’s an exercise in thought, a thought-experiment. X-buddhist ideas and practices may, indeed, offer us Homo sapiens apes some relief from suffering. But they also contribute to suffering. I imagine that that sounds utterly counter-intuitive to committed Buddhists. But from a non-buddhist (as from a non-Buddhist) perspective, the salubrity of Buddhism is not at all obvious or to be taken for granted.

    Thanks again for coming by.

  4. My guess is that any extrapolation from x-buddhist values into the political arena would basically mirror the practices of contemporary politicians, all under the banner of “skillful means” of course.

    I’m at a loss for words as to what an x-buddhist politics would actually look like. I think it would frankly be impossible to actualize x-buddhist values to the socio-political culture at large, in part, because I don’t honestly think x-buddhists actualize these values in their own lives. It is impossible to truly be equanimous and non-judgmental in the face of the all too real world that exists off the meditation cushion, although x-buddhists may pretend to do so — with the concomitant hypocrisy and passive aggressiveness that accompanies trying to play the the impossible role of the “spiritual person.”

    If we want to really grapple with the political exigencies of the day I suggest we’d better look to more contemporary thinkers than “Gotama” (read: the secular Buddhists Buddha — the name may change, but the devotion remains the same).

  5. Hey Glenn

    Interesting. I’ve thought to myself that sutta Buddhism has more in common with Libertarianism than with socialism – I do see the Buddha was being concerned with personal responsibility and individuality. Though against that one could cite the Sigolavada Sutta which emphasises duty to others. Vinaya Buddhism is of course about strictly regulating a community of (mainly) celibate men according to a mix of public expectation and religiously inspired austerity. And clearly that took some doing. One of my favourite Buddhist stories – one of the first that really got to me – is the Vinaya story about the monk with dissentary. http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2010/04/lecture-on-theme-of-illness.html

    My feeling is that the qualities you wish to extrapolate don’t lead to politics at all, but to being apolitical. The masters of these qualities seem to me to prefer their own company. Though they might hang out with others who have mastered the techniques which manifest the qualities, for no particular reason. When they do interact with the demos it tends to be in a guru role.

    More generally what one gets when one extrapolates political behaviour from teachings or should we say from dogmas, is ideologically driven politics. Your suggestion to try to extrapolate from attitudes and behaviours would probably be better, but when I go back at look at the list is looks to me like it would promote political passivity rather political activity. What attraction could politics possible have to someone with those qualities highly developed?

    BTW Have you seen this info-graphic on the differences between left & right? I found it quite interesting. http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/left-vs-right-world/

  6. But is withdrawing from the political process apolitical? Perhaps in its intention, but not in its effect. Although, if intentionality is at the heart of buddhist ethics…

  7. D.H.: of course there there is nothing “apolitical” about withdrawing from politics–it is a thoroughly intentional act, with the intention usually being to accept the political system as it is. It is a way of saying, look, this is a good enough system, because even if I reject it I am given the “freedom” to walk away. But if the freedom to sit and do nothing is the only kind of freedom allowed, being apolitical insists that this is enough; after all, we can always access the bliss of our substrate consciousness, which the political world cannot touch.

    I’m not familiar with “sutta Buddhism,” but apparently it is a kind of Buddhist fundamentalism, which picks through suttras looking for passages that, if read naively and out of context, support anything anyone wants to say?

    What we need to do is grapple with the real thought in the history of Buddhism, and consider what truths it produces, and what they can teach us today. It is not useful to over-historicize, to the point of relativizing all thought, OR to try to compare the social system of ancient India with political systems today. The question is, given the historical context of the time, are there transcendent truths about politics we can make use of today? Badiou argues that a political truth always operates by producing an evident gap between the current state of being and the capacity of the mass of people–the constraints on capacities, the ways they are limited, and the development of capacities, the ways they can be enhanced, are the themes of political truths. These truths may arise in different ways in different cultural systems, but we can always recover them.

    I’d rather avoid “Buddha was a proto-communist” or “Buddha was a proto-nazi.” Instead, what does the subject Buddhism, a subject extending over centuries, tell us about transcendent political truths?

  8. I don’t know about transcendent political truths, but I am curious about how/whether consensus buddhism’s two main values/buzzwords, mindfulness and lovingkindness, are in conflict. Because I think that a common gloss on mindfulness is being completely there in the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. And if the moment is awful, well, you need to stop resisting it. But doesn’t being compassionate toward ourselves and others demand that we work toward the ability to change our lives if we wish? (I’m thinking of something like Sen’s capacities approach, development as freedom, etc.)

  9. Hi d.h. Yes, those questions you pose are the kinds of questions that I would think extrapolation might produce. Really, I guess, it’s a way of plugging concept into action (real or imagined), and seeing what happens. What I generally find when I do so is that x-buddhist language is by nature what Wittgenstein labels “ethical” as opposed to descriptive or indicative language (maybe, too, the fact/value distinction is relevant here). “Being compassionate toward ourselves and others,” as it is used in x-buddhistic discourse, cannot possibly indicate a decisive course of action. What does it mean? And if you then say, it means Y, I ask, well is that ever really the case? or is it conceivable that cruel unintended consequences follow one’s “compassionate” action? We could go back and forth for a while like this; but it wouldn’t take long for me to suspect that “being compassionate toward ourselves and others” is an ethical statement: it prescribes an ideal state of affairs; it says wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world were such that Y were the case? But in terms of description or indication, what does it really do?

    So, in my own case, x-buddhist concepts are typically either flattened or exploded when I give them thought in relation to real-world action. By “flattened” I mean that, say a concept such as “compassion,” is rendered platitudinous at best (yes, of course, of course, let’s cultivate genuine concern for ourselves and others). By “exploded” I mean “compassion” is rendered vacuous at the middle, and delusionally full of shit and harmful at worst.

    When I first began meditating as a fifteen-year-old, I rejected my teacher’s instructions to “follow the breath.” I pointed out that I could either feel my breath (around the nose, etc.) or abandon the felt breath when it ceases and observe secondary effects of breathing, such as the rising and falling of my chest and abdomen. It was an early instance of my extrapolating a common x-buddhist instruction out from its cozy usage in ritualized buddhemic utterance, and viewing it instead as a physiological claim. That may be a trivial example. But matters get more serious when we continue to give thought to the deceptively value-laden/non-indicative function of the vast array of grandiose buddhemes occupying x-buddhistic discourse.

    If you think that Sen’s capacities approach has relevance here, maybe you’d like to tell us more about it?

    Thanks for your participation here.

  10. Greetings, Jayarava. Thanks for stopping by. Cool chart. It’s like a graphic version of this recent article by Jonathan Haidt in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Just to be clear, I listed the terms I did as examples of things that are constantly waved before my face by Buddhists. I would like to get people doing this business of extrapolating as a habit. Really, I am just talking about thinking. That’s funny the way you put it: “the masters of these qualities seem to me to prefer their own company,” hence, are ostensibly “apolitical.” Wouldn’t you agree with Tom Pepper, though, that withdrawing from the political sphere could be construed as “a thoroughly intentional act, with the intention usually being to accept the political system as it is”? So that the x-buddhistically-boasted value of “renunciation,” extrapolated out to the political sphere transmutes from a “spiritual” value to crass acquiescence to a, take your pick, repressive regime, crooked capitalism, imperialist fascism, etc., etc.

    You ask “what attraction could politics possible have to someone with those qualities [from my list] highly developed?” One of my implicit points is that these qualities are merely imaginary pieces in an imaginary game–that of x-buddhism. How do I know that? Precisely through extrapolation. “Forebearance,” “mindfulness,” and all the rest are meaningless morphemes in and of themselves. “X-buddhism” names a network of postulation within which such terms are given particular significance, via the full grammar of the system. But it all only functions within x-buddhism itself. “Highly developed” is determined by the particular x-buddhistic game being played. A term such as “the political sphere” names, I would think, a shared domain where all of our competing interests and needs and ideologies intersect. Extrapolation takes that “highly developed” and plops it down in “shared domain” and examines it. There is no place of apolitical innocence any longer for x-buddhism when we subject it to this sort of scrutiny–doing so, moreover, on our terms, not its terms.

    Anyway, nice to hear from you.

  11. Sen’s perspective is that certain institutional arrangements enhance substantive freedoms (contrast this with the view common to the American Right that freedom shrinks as institutions grow and vice versa). What people are capable of achieving is influenced by the robustness of institutions that guarantee political, economic, and other freedoms, and also by ‘enabling conditions’ like good health and basic education, which also emerge from institutions. Think about the old canard, “Anyone can grow up to be president.” Well, yes, if you are a natural born citizen and live to be thirty five, you have the formal freedom to run for that office, but that is quite different from every child having the resources to pursue a career in politics if they so desire. I think Sen strikes a good balance by assigning intrinsic importance to rights but not giving them complete priority irrespective of their consequences (cf. libertarianism, under which deprivation can flourish alongside rights). And rather than making assumptions about where the balance should lie, he thinks we should open that up for public discussion.

    The point is, sitting metta meditation doesn’t enhance people’s capability to make choices. Withdrawing from political life certainly doesn’t.

    I am not christian, but let me quote from Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope: “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

    Contrast that with an attitude of, life is unsatisfactory because we want it to be other than what it is. For life to stop causing us unease, we need to accept things as they are and give up hope of them being otherwise. And it’s true that you can enable people to make all the choices they want and they will still get old, still get sick, still die. But maybe we could work on the things that can be changed before surrendering to the totality of the present. At least the x-buddhist community should be debating that.

  12. Glenn wrote: “Buddhism claims for itself crucial knowledge about the nature and end of human suffering. And much of what it claims is put in terms that look, on the face of it, worth exploring. That’s why I have devoted over three decades of my life to exploring–and practicing–various forms of Buddhism.”

    Buddhism’s first concern, alas, is not at all the topic of suffering, as one can see when looking at the actual themes of the vast Buddhist literature, beyond the thin façade of the Four Noble Truths. If we want knowledge about suffering we should rather, I suggest, develop a modern discipline that deals with that topic.

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