09/26/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Bodhisattvas and Political Engagement

Renunciation is the attitude toward mundane things such as wealth, power and fame that they are not, in themselves, sources of true and lasting happiness and are only useful in so far as they enable us to make progress toward our spiritual goal. What we need to progress toward our spiritual goal are adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care and the leisure time necessary for spiritual practice -- the requisites of a spiritual life. A Bodhisattva is motivated to help everyone attain the true and lasting happiness found by walking a correct spiritual path, and he or she has a responsibility to help everyone attain the requisites of a spiritual life.

Should Bodhisattvas become involved in the political arena as a method of helping everyone attain the requisites of a spiritual life? My answer to this question is, "Yes."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly affirms that everyone has a right to adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care. A Bodhisattva must be committed to defending these rights, because the truth that everyone should be loved equally is the basis of these rights. All the world religions teach renunciation of the pursuit of wealth, power and fame as sources of truth happiness. All world religions teach that we should equally love all. Anyone who claims to be a religious person and who thinks that people are not entitled to meaningful work and adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care is a very confused person.

Bodhisattvas understand that we are not in competition with others in the pursuit of happiness. The true and lasting happiness that comes at the end of walking a correct spiritual path is equally available to all. People who think we are in competition with one another in the pursuit of happiness and who think that happiness comes from the accumulation of wealth and power are ignorantly causing their own future misery. So, out of love for every confused person who is looking down on others whom they are viewing as lazy moochers, a Bodhisattva has a responsibility to help them overcome their ignorance.

Some Buddhist teachers refuse to become involved in government policy debates, thinking that becoming involved in this kind of debate can only be a mundane, worldly concern. This is completely mistaken. What makes an activity or enjoyment either mundane or spiritual is the motive behind the activity. It is a mundane, worldly activity to seek political power and influence as sources of happiness. It is a mundane enjoyment to gloat about the victory of one's favorite political candidate. It is not a mundane, worldly concern to use the political arena to help everyone acquire the material requisites of a meaningful spiritual life. Buddhist teachers who are content to think and comment that poverty is a karmic result of past, greedy behavior and who don't try to teach those who aspire to positions of political power that they can and must work to protect everyone's basic material rights are unwittingly doing what Marx claimed -- using religion as an opiate. Talking and thinking this way can be an opiate blocking our own and others' compassionate experiences of the suffering of the less fortunate.

Bodhisattvas must strive to help everyone become motivated to use their material resources to practice a correct spiritual path, and a correct spiritual path helps one to overcome what Buddhists call the "root delusions" -- ignorance, anger and greed. Greed underlies most of the current problems of the world economy. Greed is what led to the disastrous decisions that caused the Western banking crisis. Greed is what underlies business decisions to transfer manufacturing to those parts of the world paying very low wages. Consumer greed also lies behind the transfer of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, because if people did not think that their happiness depends upon having the biggest possible store of material things at the lowest possible price, they would not be making purchasing decisions that reward businesses for shifting manufacturing to low-wage markets.

Although market regulation to prevent fraudulent and reckless business behavior is important, we cannot solve the root problem of most of our economic problems by merely instituting market regulations. On the other hand, if everyone were to develop universal love and compassion and view work and commerce as means of provisioning all with the requisites of a spiritual life, people would continue to be motivated to work, and the fruits of their labor would truly benefit everyone.

Some may argue that it is a mere utopian fantasy to think that it is possible for everyone to develop universal love and compassion and view commerce as a means of providing everyone with the requisites of a spiritual life. This only seems a utopian fantasy because of two current cultural states of affair. The first is that our culture is awash in messages encouraging material greed, and the second is that too few spiritual teachers are putting effort into the project of guiding their followers to the attainments of renunciation, universal love and universal compassion. Jesus did not say that loving your neighbor as yourself is a lovely but unreachable goal; he said it was one of the two greatest commandments. He also advised not to seek treasures "where moth and rust consume."

We know that Jesus did not foolishly advise us to do what is beyond our capabilities, because there are tried and true methods for cultivating renunciation, universal love and universal compassion. Bodhisattvas are different from those who have not accomplished these spiritual attainments only because they have put these methods into practice.

Spiritual guides, such as Bodhisattvas, have a responsibility to explain the rational, loving and compassionate foundation of correct government programs concerning the minimum wage, universal access to health care and what constitutes an adequate social safety net for those innocently out of work. The correct policies must be determined by asking what someone committed to contributing to the common good must have in order to lead a meaningful spiritual life and how to make sure everyone has the opportunity to engage in work that provides them with the requisites of a spiritual life.

The culture of greed has never and will never protect everyone's right to the basic necessities of a spiritual life, because it rejects the goal of the spiritual life and embraces the delusion that happiness comes from possessing material things. Historically, the proponents of the culture of greed have publicly granted that everyone should have the basic necessities of life and argued that greed can provide them to all but hasn't, thus far, only because government has over-regulated and interfered with the pursuit of material greed.

Now that the bankruptcy of these claims is brutally apparent, some prominent politicians have boldly asserted that no one has a right to adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, and anyone receiving social safety net support is a lazy freeloader. Because of these ignorant assertions Bodhisattvas have a priceless opportunity to enter into the political debate and teach renunciation, universal love, universal compassion, and the true value of work, which is to provides oneself and others with the material requisites of a spiritual life.

Let's, those of us who understand these spiritual truths, not waste this precious opportunity. When we enter into the political discussion to teach them, we are not dirtying our hands in a messy, mundane world that we should abandon, we are staying true to our mission of leading everyone to the true and lasting happiness found at the end of the spiritual path.

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