I’m not qualified to speak on behalf of all Buddhism, an ancient and worldwide system with innumerable regional and cultural variations. However, if I was forced to generalize, it would be safe to say that most schools of Buddhism are decidedly apolitical. That’s because most are based on a belief in the human potential to experience life without evaluations, mental categorizations and judgments. This kind of perspective frees up the opportunity for compassion.
I would argue that compassion is not a state but an active effort, at the center of which is a striving to understand other people, many of whom use different evaluations, mental categorizations and judgments than you. Therefore a Buddhist approach to the inauguration might have something to do with letting go of the fear and anger characterizing both sides of the deeply disturbing rift in our national consciousness, and to see what kinds of solutions may arise from that open space between our thoughts.
Toward an enlightened society
Very much in the spirit of these principals, the Shambhala tradition, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talks about an “enlightened society” founded on the radical idea that people are basically good. An enlightened society might sound sort of political. Really, it is just a collection of people striving to live their lives free from passion, aggression and ignorance (or “apathy”), those inevitable human mental states that cause us to chase after this or that thing at the expense of the present; to push away uncomfortable ideas, missing an opportunity to grow courage and learn from them; and to ignore the deeper reality of human suffering. All of these mental states are rooted in a fear that what we need or value will be taken away from us.
Kung Fu, kittens, and the true art of war
Letting go of fear is even more terrifying than the original fear. Fear and anger are hardwired into the armored tactical survival suit that is our human body. We feel afraid that if we take off our armor and stop fighting, the “other side” will win, or those suffering under the causes we care about will be left to suffer. But there must be some way to continue acting on our beliefs without making ourselves miserable and potentially harming our own cause. This is where the principal of non-violence becomes paramount. Personally I look at this in two ways. First, I draw on my love of Kung Fu movies. Second, I think about kittens.
In the famous “be as water” quote, Bruce Lee suggests that yielding and flexibility are the roots of strength. This means calming our minds. It means allowing our clear thinking to see the naturally-occurring, strategic opportunities to redirect whatever it is we are trying to stop. I encourage each of us to think about ways we have been defeating ourselves and our causes by missing obvious and auspicious opportunities. When we keep quiet in a potentially contentious argument, for example, we inspire respect, and we portray a confidence in what we believe that may give our would-be opponent pause. We allow him or her to feel listened to. Sometimes when you allow someone to see their thoughts through to the end, you and they both realize there is something you can agree on. Enter the second perspective, kittens.
Few Republicans or Democrats would stomp on a kitten or run down an old lady in the street. Personally, I’ve had to remind myself of this throughout the past year. If you won’t stomp on a kitten, you and I have something to work with, no matter how awful, naive, misguided or hateful I think your other beliefs may be.
I love this quote from Shepherd Book, one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite science fiction movies, Serenity:
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”
The kind of belief he’s talking about is not a belief in gravity (or something else it would be difficult for anyone to argue against). It’s a belief that there is something greater than ourselves more important than our individual whims. I believe that if, from a calm state, we examine our minds and our beliefs and follow them to their roots, we will discover the first terrifying but eventually liberating experience of emptiness. Of formlessness. Formlessness doesn’t mean non-existence. It means that even our most closely-held values are just thoughts. How much are my values, some of which I might kill and die for, rooted in my own attempt to slice and dice reality into digestible chunks—categorizations—that in fact don’t really “exist” anywhere?
Carl Sagan on human existence
As I like to say, the stars and planets don’t give a crap what you believe in. Carl Sagan said it a lot better in his deservedly famous excerpt from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” This snippet doesn’t capture the majesty and wisdom of the full quotation. Please, promise you will read it!
Just believing in something
I’m reading what I’ve written so far and it seems trite, except for the part about the survival suit. Taking that thing off, and, as some Tibetan Buddhists say “leaning into the sharp edges” of the things that terrify us, takes tremendous courage. That fundamental terror—based on vulnerability—is shared by everyone from fascists to saints. Segue to another quote from a great film, one inadvertently containing some great Buddhist wisdom, The Big Lebowski:
Donny: “They were Nazis Dude?”
Walter: “Oh come on Donny they were threatening castration! Are we going to split hairs here?”
Walter: “Am I wrong?”
Dude: “Man, they were nihilists, man! They kept saying they believe in nothing.”
Walter: “Nihilists! F*** me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
In the film, Walter says this even though he is a very enthusiastic and vocal convert to Judaism (“I don’t roll on Shabbos!”).
I don’t know how I got here, but let’s get away from the subject of Nazism, fast. Suffice it to say I’m more afraid of someone who operates without a code than someone whose code condones even the most deplorable act of hate. With a code, at least there is a fundamental belief in the value of belief. With analysis and self-examination, there may be some hope for the opportunity to believe in something else.
Seven words to summarize “Buddhism”
For what it’s worth, here’s what I believe:
Even my most cherished and undeniably unassailable values—for example, don’t stomp on kittens in the street—are still ultimately just choices. The sun and the planets and the stardust and carbon know nothing from right and wrong, and that is the stuff I am also made of and whose laws I am completely subject to. However, everything I have read, from Taoist scripture to the Bible to Buddhist dharma, suggests that life is more satisfying when we try to think about other people. That’s why I started meditating and studying Buddhism. Not because I’m a nice guy. But because I was looking for a way out this essential “askewedness,” often mistranslated as “suffering,” that Siddhartha Gotama discovered first on the marathon meditation that led to his enlightenment. It’s called the First Noble Truth, and it basically says that human life is effed up. Among other things, we are still wired to run from tigers and club the guy stealing our food even though we spend most of our time in temperature-controlled buildings pulling the food we need out of a magic box.
Any time you find yourself baffled over the stupid crap we do, you are experiencing the First Noble Truth.
I called this post “a” Buddhist approach to the inauguration and not “the” approach, because, again, I can’t speak on behalf of something much bigger than me, that I have profound respect for, that isn’t really an “ism” to begin with. But here’s how I would summarize Buddhism, if asked:
Slow down, pay attention, and be nice.
Truth be told I am going to fight, and fight hard, for the things I believe in, harder than before. But I’m pledging to do that without sharing Memes of Despair and Gloating on the internet (pledging to. I won’t always succeed). I’m pledging not to accuse people who voted differently than me of being terrible people (again, I will sometimes fail).
Like The Dude, I plan to abide.
– Eric Hayward
(Pictures courtesy of Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Pups are Fun Enterprises, Universal Studios and Carl Sagan).