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An American Buddhist dissident disengages

As a citizen of the United States for now 69 years, I have finally arrived at a point of complete disengagement regarding particpation in what I consider a very corrupt political system. I have watched with sadness as the system called a republic descends into a quagmire of political madness. I have withdrawn to the farthest point of participation. In other words, while I care very much about my fellow humans, I see no way to improve our lots through political action. A system that has produced Mr. Trump as President is doomed to failure.

And of course I have been roundly criticized for this stance. My question is whether this corresponds to the Dharma or does it have anything to do with it, and merely bears witness to my accumulated cynicism.

In Peace…with Metta, for you all. Thanks

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Hi Rosie,

May I just say, I know exactly what you mean.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, except to say that we should all act so as to benefit both ourselves and others. Sometimes, the darkest time comes before the dawn. Other times, well, it just keeps getting darker.

As a non-American, I can say that the rest of the world still looks to the US with both love and fear. We know that, regardless of rights and wrongs, our fates are bound up with yours, for better or for worse.

If there is solace, for me it is in the radical vision of the young, unburdened by the hideous lie of neoliberalism, free to say it how it is. This is from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019. She reminds us that the dark futures we see looming are not inevitable, not the outcome of some inexorable process of history. They happen because of choices that people make. And if we want, we can make different choices.

We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.

We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.

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As succinctly as possible, I am a professor of politics with a doctorate in Government from a well-know U.S. university. I also started practices Buddhism about two years ago.

Even before I started practicing Buddhism, my approach to the real world of politics as an educator and scholar has been to try and stay as neutral, objective, and detached as possible. Just as scientists need to eliminate as much as possible any personal interest they have in their research so as to minimize confirmation bias, social scientists such as myself need to be careful not to personalize the subject of their academic work, which in my case is politics.

I have found in my Buddhist practice skills that reinforce the objectivity I try to cultivate in my academic work. I find the concept of equanimity stressed in Buddhist practice to be extremely useful in how I think about politics. As much as it is natural to have an interest in the political systems that govern polities (whether at the local, regional, or state level), a personal stake in politics can easily become an attachment, and thereby a source of suffering.

My take on reducing suffering caused by an attachment to negative feelings about politics is to try and let them go by maintaining mindfulness about the impermanence of any set of prevailing political conditions. I am only two years into my practice, so this is still a very hard process. However, I take comfort in what a monk recently told me about the Dhamma being one’s friend. When I experience suffering due to attachments brought about by negative feelings towards politics, I turn to my practice and endeavor to maintain mindfulness and equanimity. Ending suffering is a lifetime process, but I take solace in knowing that the Dhamma is my friend.

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Hi Rosie,

Another academic social scientist here, like @Metaphor. I do think that participation is important. Being part of the force for good is part of the kamma that we make, leave to others, and ultimately take with ourselves.

But participating with attachment to the results is very hard in this era. Dealing with the toxicity of politics and the news cycle has been difficult for me. Taking conscious decisions in what kinds of information I allow to claim my attention has helped me. I read the news if I learn something useful from it that affects me or I can act on. I don’t read the news otherwise. SN 12.64 points out that the information we consume is food for our mind, and desire for it leads to dukkha:

Mendicants, there are these four fuels. … What four? Solid food, whether coarse or fine; contact is the second, mental intention the third, and consciousness the fourth. … If there is desire, relishing, and craving for mental intention as fuel, consciousness becomes established there and grows. Where consciousness is established and grows, name and form are conceived. Where name and form are conceived, …

Part of what I have been trying to make my practice is to cultivate metta more fully in my day. The suttas say we should cultivate metta toward everyone. It is very difficult and I am far from this stage but this includes every politician who actively works to increase dukkha in the world. AN 11.15 lists eleven benefits to cultivating metta:

What eleven? You sleep well. You wake happily. You don’t have bad dreams. Humans love you. Non-humans love you. Deities protect you. You can’t be harmed by fire, poison, or blade. Your mind quickly enters immersion. Your face is clear and bright. You don’t feel lost when you die. If you don’t penetrate any higher, you’ll be reborn in a Brahmā realm.

Among the eleven benefits is that the “mind quickly enters immersion.” This indicates that cultivating metta is vital for meditation practice, too. Kp 9 is good, and here are some sutta pointers for other metta phrases one can use:

https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/metta-instructions/10000

So my advice would be: do participate, but participate without attachment, guarding your awareness, and participate with metta.

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Good conclusion, samsara as a whole is doomed to fail!

There’s a lot of right view/understanding in what you write! You’re realising that this kind of stuff is just not worth the trouble.

Hence drop it, leave it behind, it is definitely not your problem!

Don’t overthink it, leave it aside and seek to focus on developing the threefold right resolve/thought: letting go/renunciation, friendliness/kindness, non-violence/compassion.

If conditions are present, the path unfolds up through right speech and action to right livelihood.

And from that point right effort can then be refined for the more transformative elements of mindfulness/presence and stillness/immersion which then doom our suffering to an end, extinction.

:anjal:

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I can relate a lot to your post. I feel torn between, on one hand, feeling like I have a responsibility to engage with politics to help those who are suffering, and feeling like there’s no path to improving things even if I tried.

In any case, just following US politics more closely these last ~6 months has definitely not had a good influence on my mind. There’s is so much unskillful speech in the political discourse, people wounding each other with verbal daggers and so on. It’s not a healthy environment to be in IMO.

I’m privileged enough that I could just stop caring about politics and I’d be fine. But how much suffering is allowed because those who happen to be more insulated from the whims of politics sit on the sidelines?

It’s not that it’s “my problem”, rather, don’t I have a duty to help my fellow beings?

This is an ethical dilemma that bugs me that I don’t have an answer to.

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To me it is not a dilemma at all.
The world’s problems belong to the world.
The world is the domain of Mara, its dependent origination is rooted in desire, anger, delusion.
If we hear the calling Buddha made we would focus on enabling, making way, for its dependent cessation.
I don’t see in the path to that cessation a path factor called right politics.
What I see is right thought/resolve, right speech/discourse, right action and right livelihood etc.
The closest you get to right politics is, once ordained, to seek to fulfill the expectations of how bhikkhus and bhikkhunis should resort to local decision making ruled by consensus and dialogue, rooted in compassion and forgiveness.
:anjal:

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I think you’d be better off helping people through Dhamma perspectives. At least there are real solutions in the Dhamma, not so in politics. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I do agree with this, I don’t think politics or any form of social organization can provide a real solution as in an end to suffering. Any peace and stability won is transient and will eventually fall apart.

My dilemma is more like knowing someone is drowning; shouldn’t I at least like the tweet of the person saying “we should go save that drowning person”?

It’s quite silly, because it probably accomplishes very little while exposing me to a very negative discourse. They probably say Twitter is toxic for a reason :expressionless:

Edit:

To tie this post to the OP, right effort (e.g. an4.13) entails striving to make grow and uphold skillful qualities.

Engaging in the politics has not gone in that direction for me, so I know I either have to either stop enganging or find a way to engage that is positive :slight_smile:

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My sense in this is to press on. For myself and my spiritual friends, we are well positioned to at least have some insight into the causes and conditions that lead to such suffering in this world. For this reason, I feel the need to engage, to press on, to fight the good fight. Even if we feel we are tilting at windmills with politics, to simply walk away from the fight leaves the playing field to the cruel, the corrupt and the greedy. This is why (in the US) supporting the voices and the movements cultivated by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barack Obama, and some courageous thought leaders and journalists is so important.

After the Buddha’s awakening, he had a choice: to retreat into solitude and lament the ignorance and stupidity of the world, or to go forth with the hope that there would be just a few with little dust in their eyes.

You’re free of sorrow; but look at these people
overwhelmed with sorrow, oppressed by rebirth and old age.

Rise, hero! Victor in battle, leader of the caravan,
wander the world without obligation.
Let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma!
There will be those who understand!’ MN 26

Maybe a system that operates without awareness of Dhamma, without wisdom, compassion, and insight, is doomed to failure. And so, we press on, guided by our ajahns here, and try to do our best in this messed up world …

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Cynicism or loss of delusion :slight_smile:

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The only dhammic response I can find is that sometimes I care about politics and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I want to contribute to policies of general well-being and sometimes I think that people should work on their own without demanding from society to solve their issues. Is this (inevitable) oscillation acceptable to me? or do I need to find a (necessarily neurotic) ‘final answer’ to my attitude towards society and politics? And even that changes: sometimes I accept my inconsistency and sometimes not. anicca anicca anicca…

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Thanks for all of your support. I feel a tad better about my detachment, for otherwise as a citizen of this country I too look upon this government with love and fear, hope and despair. My view from the inside has shown me over the past 50 years-beginning with Kent State and the Vietnam war-that this system created and promoted by my fellow humans is dedicated to increasing its own power and control without regard to human and civil rights. It is true that certain radical members of Congress provide some hope for the future of democracy, but honestly having watched the slow steady decline of the system, I will not risk to hope.

Thanks and indeed I have long suffered from my own idealistic hope for a more humane administration only to witness the general decline in the choices of narcissistic, sociopathic leaders interested only in serving and enriching themselves. So the practice of equanimity, mindfulness and compassion are the best tools this Buddhist will employ.

Sounds like you are on the path, carry on!

Yes, and it is a supreme challenge when consider how to send metta to Mr. Trump. For all the harm has done and continues to do to the earth and the people. Isn’t there a story about a Buddhist who took the life of someone whose misdeeds were so egregious that this Buddhist thought it worth the negative karma to murder the person who was inflicting harm on so many others? NO, I am not suggesting this, only wondering about the principle.

Must say that I don’t understand how one can have the motivation to participate without being attached to the goal?

Ah, some wisdom I can relate to.

Very wise my friend. That would be the goal. Thanks for your clarity.

Agreed!

Yet is suffering caused by contemplative inaction, or the self serving needs of those determined to accumulate power at all costs. It is my studied theory that only the very worst of us climb the pyramid of power by stepping on whomever they need to in order to satisfy their selfish needs. What can one do about this systemic glorification for power and control? One can do nothing but be mindful and compassionate.

Thanks for the succinctness. Your words describe my prevailing sentiment.

Yet over the course of history, those voices of reason and goodness have consistently been trampled by the system set up to eliminate opposing voices. For if systems are created and maintained by humans…aren’t humans at fault?

I choose the latter. Thanks you Teacher!

I appreciate all the support, in Peace!

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It does. When delusion, anger, and fighting are considered the norms of society, it’s an act of subversiveness to chose to be wise, compassionate, and non-partisan. Somebody has to keep the flame of enlightenment lit for when everyone comes around to their senses and want to give it their attention again.

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That makes perfect sense. Thanks

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A lot is still bad in the world, but a lot has also improved since Kent State. The Voting Rights Act re-enfranchised millions of African Americans and there is research that finds that this led to measurable improvements in government services available to them. This is not a discussion for an EBT forum but I would be happy to send you studies on this privately. The news tends to focus on what is bad but that masks the reality of things.

I hope you are well!

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Can I just say thanks to everyone on this thread for keeping it kind, helpful, and on-topic! :pray: And especially to those offering advice from a background of expertise, it is a blessing to have informed voices.

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Agreed! All offerings have been most helpful. Gracias

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I always have a hard time with this kind of Buddhist discussion where the subject seems to be mixed with democrat/liberal opinions… I know some Buddhists who are for Trump, and who have arguments for that. I think that overall, a Buddhist should not get too attached to politics, or even stay away from it.

With mettā.

:pray:

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Sorry you are having a hard time with this kind of discussion, although the topic as I described it might have precluded your suffering regarding the political aspects as they intertwine with the interpretations of the Dharma stated here. I also think, at least here in the USA that ‘staying away’ from it is not an option.

This statement goes right to the heart of the discussion of mixing politics and religion. And provokes me in a way that gives me insight into my own attachments regarding the character of government systems and the people who lead us, and to some degree control our destiny in the material world.
I am a little confused however by the apparent contradiction in your post regarding these two comments:

Thanks for the mental stimulation.
With Metta, my friend

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