Many people feel there are two taboo topics, religion and politics. Most people classify Buddhism as a religion, albeit a unique one. Personally I don’t believe Buddhism is a religion really, rather it’s a philosophy of life and a psychology of mind.
What is Politics? The World English Dictionary defines politics as “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, especially those relationships involving authority or power.” Notice that politics is about relationships. Anyway, Melvin McLeod catches this idea about politics being about relationships. He says, “politics is really about how we live together as human beings….” Now clearly we, as Buddhists, should be interested in and concerned about how we live together as human beings.
For some reason people think that politics and religion should never mix. The Dalai Lama has said, “I question the popular assumption that religion and ethics have no place in politics and that religious persons should seclude themselves as hermits.” And you should question it too. Politics is about relationships. To deny religion a voice in politics is to act as if religion should have nothing to say about how we live together. Yet that’s what Buddhism is all about. The Dharma teaches you how to have and develop relationships that are built on wisdom and compassion.
But there is a danger is the opposite direction, claiming that the Buddha was a communist, a capitalist, or even an imperialist. I believe that he was beyond that, that he was pragmatic. He used whatever government was in power and encouraged it to be wise and compassionate. As any enlightened being knows, governments do not solve problems, people do. Changing governments does not automatically translate into less suffering. However, changing people does translate into less suffering. It is people who cause suffering and it is people who can end it.
There is an inherent problem in mixing religion with politics. The basis of religion is morality, purity and faith, while basis for politics is power. As the old adage goes, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And that is why democracy fits best with Buddhist values.
Democracy aims to share the power with the people. That’s why l think that the Dalai Lama is right when he said, “Today, the values of democracy, open society, respect for human rights, and equality are becoming recognized all over the world as universal values. To my mind there is an intimate connection between democratic values and the fundamental values of human goodness. Where there is democracy there is a greater possibility for the citizens of the country to express their basic human qualities, and where these basic human qualities prevail, there is also a greater scope for strengthening democracy. Most importantly, democracy is also the most effective basis for ensuring world peace.”
Clearly in the Dalai Lama’s mind, Buddhism and democratic values go together quite well. And so, I would argue, Buddhism and politics also go together. I believe in Engaged Buddhism. One way for Buddhism to be engaged in social issues is through politics.
In fact, one could argue that just being a Buddhist practitioner is being political. Noah Levine takes this viewpoint saying, “Buddhist practice is a political action. Training one’s heart, and actions in wisdom and compassion is the ultimate form of political rebellion. The spiritual path is an engaged act of going against ignorance and oppression.”
Meditation is usually not seen as a political act, but as Reginald A. Ray explains, “we must understand that meditation, the centerpiece of the Buddhist path, is itself the most radical kind of political action. Why? In meditation, we step out of the value system of the conventional world and start to look at things from a fresh viewpoint. We don’t know what we are going to come up with, but we do know we are not likely to remain an uncritical supporter of the status quo.”
But just talking about being engaged politically is not enough. As David Loy states, “At this critical point in history, the challenge for a socially Engaged Buddhism is not to persuade citizens that religion can play a positive role, but to show them.”