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.