Picking up on the discussion from another topic, I think it is important to keep separate the question of how we should respond to the moral, social and political issues of our time, and how the Buddha would respond. We should maintain a sense of the distinctiveness of the Buddha’s own approach to life, and what the Buddha’s path both is and isn’t. It’s a path to arahantship, not an all-purpose guide to all of the moral and political conundrums of our lives. The Buddhist saint is purer and more spiritually free than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean they are more “moral”, or more “socially responsible” or more “woke”, or that they have any general recipe for the best way of tending to our households, or our businesses, or caring for our bodies or even our planets.
In the US, we have a number of prominent Buddhist teachers who are very socially and politically active. I think that is fine and great. But unfortunately, in pursuing these interests, activists sometimes misrepresent the Buddha. Some of them even sent out a joint letter some months ago that was headed with a fake Buddha quote. One prominent teacher, boiling over with her own political frustrations and anger, even tried to convince people recently that the Buddha believed in “right anger.”
But this isn’t just a western thing. In the years following the Buddha’s enlightenment, somehow the path evolved from a training regimen for those seeking supreme peace, and a relinquishment of the burdens of worldly existence, into an all-encompassing “religion” in the typical sense: a comprehensive scheme for the maintenance of social and moral order, authority and hierarchy, filled with temples and offerings, magic and priestcraft, state sponsorship and co-option, and moral training and disciplining for the young.
Even those of us who live in what we think of as a post-religious, modernized and “secular” world are still guided in our thinking by the intellectually totalitarian ambitions of some of the religions that preceded our present forms of consciousness, and by what we have inherited from those systems. We may be convinced that there is a universal moral law, emanating from some mysterious source beyond society, and which in some way “binds” us to its commands. To figure out how to live we only need to identify that law and its parts and logical consequences. But why believe there is such a thing?
If we become convinced that there was some universal moral law-knower in the past, we might look to that individual for all the answers. It’s very tempting to try to turn moral questions, and other practical questions, into questions about “What would the Buddha do?” But sometimes those of us in the world just have to figure that out on our own what to do, and let the Buddha remain the Buddha. We can learn from the Buddha much about the causes of anger, violence, greed, fear, stupidity and suffering. But that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what to do about our world, a world which is permeated by these defilements.
We can’t know for sure how the Buddha would live if he had been born into our society rather his own. But I do feel confident in thinking that if he were driven by the same spiritual needs and yearnings in our time that he had in his time, then he would have walked away from it all as a black-haired youth, and abandoned all of the social and familial obligations that had been prescribed for him, in order to seek the deathless and a way to the end of suffering.
The Buddha and his path are a refuge from the worldly winds, even for those who do not follow the path wholeheartedly and all of them time, and who do not live the holy life 24 hours a day, but only turn into it occasionally. There is peace and relief in that refuge, like a cave found in the middle of the storm. But the cave cannot be a refuge if the inside of the cave is filled with all of the howling winds of worldly clamor, strife, ideological warfare and political busyness, organizing, networking and speechifying that we find outside the cave. That’s why we need a monastic sangha of true followers of the holy life, who have abandoned the world and left its management to the worldlings, who can provide a living manifestation of the peace the Buddha found, and that the rest of us can sit close to when we choose.