THE BLOG

Do Spirituality And Politics Mix?

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I still regard myself as a novice when it comes to many aspects of the Buddhist teachings. Having now a ten-year daily meditation practice, and having read quite widely in the literature, I do not yet think of myself as a "student" in the the sense that a true student immerses himself or herself deeply and without reservation in the teachings. I am frankly an amateur of Buddhism. I love the practice and I am persuaded of the wisdom of what the Buddha taught, but I am not ready to turn my life over to the religious aspects of Buddhism. And I do NOT claim authority or complete understanding of the teachings.

That said, I remain in something of a quandary when it comes to politics. The teachings, in my admittedly limited understanding, advocate equanimity, non-attachment and goodwill toward others--even those with whom I disagree most fundamentally. On the other hand, with every fiber of my being, I believe in justice, fairness, mutual tolerance, and the inherent equality of all human beings. I understand that there are differences between us human beings, and honor those differences; but I cannot support the privilege of the very few against the well-being of the many, nor the abuse of power to oppress and subjugate. And when I look around our country and the world in its current state, I see little on the geopolitical front but injustice, unfairness, intolerance, and inequality.

Call me naive, but I want to see a better world, and do what I can to contribute to that betterment. I want to live my life in such a way that it reflects the values I believe in. The practical, realist--Buddhist?--part of me recognizes that there are limits to my capacity to bring about the changes I believe in, and that the best I can do is to make changes in my own life. By becoming, simply, a better person myself, I trust that I am contributing to the wider cause. It's the theory of the butterfly wing and the tempest: even the tiniest action in one part of the universe causes a reaction everywhere. It's what Thich Nhat Hanh, I believe, calls "interbeing."

That thinking, certainly, has its appeal. I have little trouble going along with it. And yet... and yet... There is this other part of me that gets sucked in, that gets as mad as hell, that demands action at the social and political level. That wants to fight back against the powers of exploitation and oppression. This is the part that is glued to the television, to the news from throughout the globe about disease and famine, armed conflict, and vastly expanding, shifting populations. It's the part that worries about climate change, about the future of our species. It's the part that is outraged by the shameless actions of our current administration, about its resource war and its favoring of the wealthy, about its violation of basic human rights both here and abroad, about its turning a blind eye to torture, its secretiveness and its dishonesty. It's the part that demands a fair break for the underprivileged in this country, a decent education for every citizen, equal opportunity in employment, and a workable national health care plan with access and benefits for all.

I guess the ideal (Buddhist?) solution is to be political without attachment to the outcome. To act with integrity to my beliefs even as I forthrightly acknowledge the limits of my power to effect change--which would result, hopefully, in the desired equanimity. This is easier said than done, of course. The sense of powerlessness in the face of the world's problems and the inadequacy of our political system is not confined to this one voter. It's shared by a great number of us, people of good will and good conscience who want to do the best they can for their country and their fellow beings. For some, I know, that sense of powerlessness leads to apathy--a very different thing from equanimity.

Another, different solution is simply to stand back and refuse involvement. This is not one that I myself can feel comfortable with, so the inner struggle will certainly not come to a foreseeable conclusion. It's simply one of those perplexities I have to learn to live with.