Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Buddha, Jesus & Socrates Need Help: Part 2 via Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr, 20th century American
In my prior post on this topic, I touched on the history of Christian political thought up to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, after which (roughly speaking) the weight of thought veers in a different direction after Machiavelli and Hobbes. I now want to jump forward to the 20th century and to the thinker whom I’ve found most informative and persuasive in his analysis of politics and the problems of ethics: Reinhold Niebuhr. Taking a cue from Protestant ministers who would announce the text upon which they would base their homily, my text for this blog post will be Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, published in 1944. 

Niebuhr was an American theologian and political thinker active in public life from the 1920s to the 1960s. In a very helpful introduction to my edition of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Gary Dorrien (Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary, and Professor of Religion, Columbia University) provides a useful account of Niebuhr’s thinking over his long career. Dorrien also provides a succinct statement of some of Niebuhr’s most important themes and insights about politics and ethics: 

  • the problems of human “fallibility, sin, and ambiguity”;
  • the understanding that human groups will always place self-interest first and foremost and therefore a struggle for power will ensue;
  • occasionally individuals could overcome self-centeredness when motivated by love; and
  • Jesus provides no direction with the issue of political ethics. 

This last proposition severs Niebuhr from the Social Gospel proponents with whom he once shared allegiance. In arguing that Jesus taught no political ethic, Niebuhr identified a central lacuna in the Gospels that later tradition sought to rectify. Thus, Niebuhr takes up issues that St. Augustine struggled with near the beginning of Christianity in Late Antiquity. Following the lead of Augustine, along with influences (theologically) from Luther and Calvin, Niebuhr develops a realist stance of Christian (and secular) ethics toward the political world. In his Introduction, Dorrien describes The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, as “written at midcareer as Niebuhr was coming fully into his own, is the most comprehensive statement of his political philosophy.” Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition (Introduction by Gary Dorrien). A careful consideration of this work suggests ways in which we can think about bridging the gap between individual ethics that require love and eschew violence against the realities of political power. 
In a quote that should rival Churchill’s for its pithy and ironic defense of democracy, Niebuhr wrote: “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Id. (Forward to the First Edition (1944)). Niebuhr identifies democracy with the rise of the bourgeois in Europe and then in America. It arose because individuals wanted to protect themselves and their property. So a new balance was struck, one in which freedom from constraint and arbitrary exercise of power became of the utmost importance. But Niebuhr also realized the larger issues of freedom and community that arise from this background. He writes: 

Democracy can therefore not be equated with freedom. An ideal democratic order seeks unity within the conditions of freedom; and maintains freedom within the framework of order. Man requires freedom in his social organization because he is “essentially” free, which is to say, that he has the capacity for indeterminate transcendence over the processes and limitations of nature. This freedom enables him to make history and to elaborate communal organizations in boundless variety and in endless breadth and extent. But he also requires community because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfill his life within himself but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows.
 Id. (pp. 3-4)

Niebuhr is not a simple cheerleader for bourgeois democracy; to the contrary, he is a sharp critic of it and of capitalism as a social and economic system. He states: 

Bourgeois individualism may be excessive and it may destroy the individual's organic relation to the community; but it was not intended to destroy either the national or the international order. On the contrary the social idealism which informs our democratic civilization had a touching faith in the possibility of achieving a simple harmony between self-interest and the general welfare on every level.
 Id. (p. 7)

But it is this faith that Niebuhr spurns, the belief in progress and the inevitability of social improvement endorsed by those he terms “the children of light”. Niebuhr describes the children of light: 

Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed “the children of light.” This is no mere arbitrary device; for evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature “whole” such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. The “children of light” may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good.
Id. (pp. 9-10)

He then describes the “children of darkness”: “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest.” Id. (p. 10). Where the children of light are naïve, the children of darkness are knowing. Niebuhr argues that for the children of light to succeed in bringing about a better world, they must learn the ways of their cynical counterparts. And in what may shock some contemporary readers, Niebuhr includes Marxists (at least some) among the children of light: idealistic in believing self-will and conflict can be finally resolved. He writes: 

The Marxists, too, are children of light. Their provisional cynicism does not even save them from the usual stupidity, nor from the fate, of other stupid children of light. That fate is to have their creed become the vehicle and instrument of the children of darkness. A new oligarchy is arising in Russia, the spiritual characteristics of which can hardly be distinguished from those of the American “go-getters” of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And in the light of history Stalin will probably have the same relation to the early dreamers of the Marxist dreams which Napoleon has to the liberal dreamers of the eighteenth century.
Id. (pp. 32-33)

Note that Niebuhr wrote this during the war, when Stalin led one of our allies in a great titanic struggle and when Roosevelt believed he could woo Stalin into joining a liberal post-war world. While Niebuhr’s equivalence of American “go-getters” with the leaders of the Kremlin seems far-fetched, his comparison of Stalin to Napoleon and crushed dreams is prescient.  

Niebuhr sums up his brief for the children of light: 

The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.
Id. (pp. 40-41). 

Niebuhr recognized the modern nation-state as the primary actor in international politics. About it, he writes: “The morally autonomous modern national state does indeed arise; and it acknowledges no law beyond its interests. The actual behaviour of the nations is cynical. But the creed of liberal civilization is sentimental.” Id. (p. 33). Thus a conflict, especially open and obvious (and continuing) in American history between the idealists (Wilsonians we may say) and the moral realists (of whom Niebuhr is perhaps the most articulate). This dichotomy in American practice runs all through American history in the 20th century. Our most “Machiavellian” president[i], Richard Nixon, admired Wilson and saw himself carrying on the Wilson legacy while he proved himself a master of geopolitical realism in the American interest. President Obama, who cited Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher”, walks a fine line between brutal realism, Niebuhr-like caution, and American idealism, sentimentality, and nationalism. 

Lest one think Niebuhr too pessimistic, we should note that he supports efforts to limit conflict and build institutions: “The problem of overcoming this chaos and of extending the principle of community to worldwide terms has become the most urgent of all the issues which face our epoch.” Id. (p. 153). In fact, that we may think of a “world community has two important sources that allow such a concept to enjoy any reality. The first source is religion. Niebuhr writes: 

While the religions of the east [earlier referring to the Confucian and Daoist traditions of China and the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India] were generally too mystic and otherworldly to give historic potency to universal ideals, their emerging universal perspectives must be counted as added evidence of the fact that there has been a general development in human culture toward the culmination of religions and philosophies in which the meaning of life and its obligations were interpreted above and beyond the limits of any particular community.[ii]
Id. (pp. 156-157).

Niebuhr identifies the developments in the technical realm as the other impetus toward a world community. Taken together, the reality of a single world community is more than a liberal pipe dream. Yet, against this, Niebuhr identifies the centrifugal force and predicts that “international politics of the coming decades will be dominated by great powers who will be able to prevent recalcitrance among the smaller nations, but who will have difficulty in keeping peace between each other because they will not have any authority above their own powerful enough to bend or deflect their wills.” Id. (p. 171). 

In making these observations, Niebuhr criticizes realism in international relations almost as harshly as liberal institutionalism: 

It is indicative of the spiritual problem of mankind that these realistic approaches [to international relations] are often as close to the abyss of cynicism as the idealistic approaches are to the fog of sentimentality. The realistic school of international thought believes that world politics cannot rise higher than the balance-of-power principle. The balance-of-power theory of world politics, seeing no possibility of a genuine unity of the nations, seeks to construct the most adequate possible mechanism for equilibrating power on a world scale. Such a policy, which holds all factors in the world situation in the most perfect possible equipoise, can undoubtedly mitigate anarchy. A balance of power is in fact a kind of managed anarchy. But it is a system in which anarchy invariably overcomes the management in the end. Despite its defects the policy of the balance of power is not as iniquitous as idealists would have us believe. For even the most perfectly organized society must seek for a decent equilibrium of the vitalities and forces under its organization. If this is not done, strong disproportions of power develop; and wherever power is inordinate, injustice results. But an equilibrium of power without the organizing and equilibrating force of government, is potential anarchy which becomes actual anarchy in the long run. The balance-of-power system may, despite its defects, become the actual consequence of present policies. The peace of the world may be maintained perilously and tentatively, for some decades, by an uneasy equilibrium between the three great powers, America, Russia and Britain. [iii]
Id. (pp. 173-175)

Niebuhr goes on to consider the histories and practices of particular nations: the U.S., Britain, Russia, and China, and how they will relate the new order in the post-war world, displaying prophetic insight through his observations. He also notes (again) the tension between individual morality and political realities that create tensions: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics. But they do not arise where no effort is made to bring the power impulse of politics under the control of conscience. The pretension that it has been brought completely under control is thus the hypocritical by-product of the moral endeavour.” Id. (pp. 184-185). He sums up the quandary with this pronouncement: “The field of politics is not helpfully tilled by pure moralists; and the realm of international politics is particularly filled with complexities which do not yield to the approach of a too simple idealism. Id. (p. 186). In the end, Niebuhr concludes that we must strive for the impossible: community where none is fully realized peace where it is never final. 

This book seems to me less fundamental and comprehensive than Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, but both works give us guidance as far as guidance can be found. As with Buddhism, we have to conclude that we have no definitive standards for conducting political life from the founders. The Christian tradition has built theories (often conflicting), but none can fairly claim to have arisen directly out of the Gospels or the New Testament. And we cannot turn to Niebuhr for rules of ethics: he provides none. He opposed Roosevelt’s arms build-up before Munich, and then he rallied in support of the fight against Fascism. In the early 60’s he supported the U.S. effort in Vietnam, but he later became a vocal critic of the war. Niebuhr’s thought is marked by ambiguity, irony, and equivocation. One shouldn’t turn to it if you are looking for the answer to whether a particular policy or course of political conduct meets a given test of morality or ethics. There are no easy answers. For instance, should the U.S. use drones on known Islamic terrorists plotting the death of Americans when we know that innocents will be killed? Should we arm rebels and bomb when American are murdered, even though the “collateral damage” (so Orwellian) will claim innocent lives? The litany of tough practical and moral choices could continue indefinitely. There is no existing answer book unless one takes a position of absolutism. 

Does the liberal-secular tradition provide a more reasoned, easily identified set of answers? I hope to explore that in a future post, perhaps considering Max Weber, Michael Ignatieff, and Michael Walzer. And for a completely different take, I hope to consider the ideas of Gandhi about war and peace, which may prove more nuanced than many would have thought.

[i] This designation mischaracterizes both Machiavelli and Nixon. For a convincing understanding of Machiavelli that goes beyond branding him a mere cynic (as Niebuhr does), see Bobbitt, Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made, which argues that Machiavelli’s The Prince was a step on the road to a republic and the unification of Italy and therefore a provisional ethic. As to Nixon, he was more Shakespeare’s Richard III, who sought to set the murderous Machevil to school “(3 Henry IV, 3.2.16) with his personal ambition. Nixon had a mixture of both. Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood in House of Cards, likewise, is almost all Richard III and no Machiavelli, at least in motive.
[ii] This is an over generalization of “eastern” religions, and it overlooks that fact that Christianity was—and is—an otherworldly religion.
[iii]See Henry Kissinger's just published World Order for a consideration and defense of a balance of power stance.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Jesus, Buddha & Socrates Need Help--Part 1: Through the Lens of William (Patrick) Ophuls

 Actually, the title is erroneous. Jesus, Buddha, and Plato don’t need help—we do. Whether one follows the way of salvation set for in the Gospels, the path to enlightenment offered by the Buddha, or the way of wisdom explored by Socrates, unless one dives in head-first via a monastic or hermetic life, one must remain in a sinful and imperfect world. This is the world of politics, of deciding who gets what, when, and how. It’s a world of compromise, imperfection, and—quite often—dirty hands. It’s a world marked by corruption and decay, punctuated with periods of growth in wealth, knowledge, and well-being. The worm is always in the flower. How do these avatars of love and wisdom expect us to live in this imperfect world? 

Jesus, in the traditional view, would have us defer to a world to come. Some argue that his vision was of this world, and that a social upheaval would reveal the Kingdom of God is among us. But a New Heaven and a New Earth have not come to pass. The parousia has not occurred. Life has gone on. Politics has gone on, and Jesus left no theory of politics. Only from the scraps, such as “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God”. Any Christian theory of politics arises from scraps of scripture that give us some inkling of how Jesus and his New Testament followers came to think about this world. Only long after the time of Jesus and Paul did Christianity attempt to come to grips with the continuing reality of the world and the need to address the demands of social, political, and economic life. As to politics, the work of St. Augustine and his idea of the City of God and the City of Man, of dividing divine reality from human reality, became the most significant statement of how Christianity would address the demands of this world. Medieval political thinkers developed the theory of the Two Swords—the need for both religious and secular governance—and St. Thomas Aquinas folded Aristotelian thought and its political insights into the Christian worldview. But thoughts of a coherent and compelling union of political insights with Christianity never worked in a fully logical, coherent manner. Finally, Niccolò Machiavelli in Renaissance Florence turned the Christian “Mirror of Princes” literature upside down. Instead of promoting the cultivation of Christian virtues by rulers, Machiavelli called for a divorce of religious ethics from political ethics. Notwithstanding a great deal of resistance and disdain, the divorce occurred. What Machiavelli might have left standing, Thomas Hobbes finished off.

I learned most of what I wrote above by the time I finished college, well versed in both Christianity and the Western political tradition. But what about the Buddhist tradition that has taken hold in the West and that has influenced me? What is the Buddha’s theory of politics? It turns out, like Jesus, he didn’t have a theory of politics. (Plato, creator of “Socrates”, leaves a more ambiguous legacy.)

I had occasion to raise this issue with a man who seemed to be the perfect person to address it: William (Patrick) Ophuls, former Foreign Service officer, Yale-trained political scientist, Northwestern University professor, author of four books on the politics of scarcity and long-term trends in history—and most significantly—a long-time practitioner of Buddhist insight meditation. Ophuls directed me to an essay he’d written entitled “The Politics of Meditation” (contained as an appendix in his book The Buddha Takes No Prisoners). In it, he considers these issues and compels us to think more deeply about them. 

In his essay, Ophuls argues that the Buddha, despite his admonitions against “false speech” and violence, implicitly condones political choices that may—at least to some degree—entail deception or violence. Ophuls recounts Buddha’s encounter with King Pasenadi of Koasala, a warrior-king who made decisions of life and death. But the Buddha did not rebuke him or condemn him; in fact, after the King left, the Buddha remarked to followers “that the monarch’s views were ‘monuments to the Dhamma.’” Ophuls, Patrick (2012-05-29). Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator's Survival Guide (Kindle Locations 1758-1759). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition. Ophuls also points out that Buddha maintained good relations with rulers, which given the significance of his movement (he gained many followers and altered the social fabric) is no small feat. (Contrast these successful dealings with rulers and the Buddha’s long life with the collision course with political authorities, both Roman and Jewish, that Jesus embarked upon from the beginning of his ministry and that led to his execution after only about three years of activity.) Based on Buddha’s remarks and history (and remember that Buddha was the son of a king trained to serve as a king), Ophuls concludes “there indeed exists an implicit politics of dharma— a politics that contradicts many contemporary attitudes and opinions, because the Buddha taught a way of personal liberation, not a political ideology.” Id. 1752-1754. So what does this “implicit” politics of dharma look like? And even if not a “political ideology”, it contradicts “many contemporary attitudes and opinions” (but not all). So how do we practice it? Ophuls does not provide a direct answer, but he goes on to explore the contours of the issue: 

Thus although he was an exponent of nonviolence, the Buddha was not a pacifist as we would understand that term. Nor did he oppose the death penalty.
. . . .
How could this be? How could the Buddha, who made nonharming the foundation of his morality, seemingly condone the king’s violence? The answer is simple, if unpalatable to contemporary sensibilities: men are not angels, so government is a necessary evil; but government rests on coercion; ergo, those who govern must be willing and able to use violent means to keep the peace and defend the realm. The Buddha’s praise of King Pasenadi tacitly acknowledged that those who rule must employ force when necessary.

Id. 1754-1755; 1759-1763

Ophuls also describes the actions of Hadrian upon his appointment as Trajan’s successor: Hadrian directed the assassination of three would-be rivals who would likely have fomented civil war in order to challenge Hadrian’s claim. Many lives and great losses would have resulted from another Roman civil war—three lives to allow two decades of peace and prosperity. A fair trade or an unmitigated evil deed? Along similar lines, Ophuls recounts the tale of the Bhagavad Gita and Arjuna’s lament at the death and destruction that he has asked to rain upon his teachers and kinsman. Krishna rebukes Arjuna and directs him to follow his karma, his destiny. From this line of thought, Ophuls concludes: 

So the Buddha’s penetrating intelligence took in the whole panorama of human existence, seeing it in a dispassionate light and from an ecological perspective. Different personalities at different stages of spiritual development have divers social roles and responsibilities. Only a minority is called to be ordained as a monk or nun— and therefore to a vow of absolute nonharming in this lifetime. And a good thing too, because if the majority tried to devote their lives to full- time spiritual practice, then who would grow the crops, tend the cows, and weave the cloth?

Id. 1774-1778

Ophuls enjoins us to follow our karma. If we are called to serve as monks, we must follow a monk’s ethic; if called to rule, we must follow a ruler’s ethic. The “good” is thus not defined by the act itself, but by its intention—the how and why of an action count more than the physics of the action. Ophuls writes: 

To put it another way, the key to morality is volition; it is intention, not the deed itself, which creates karma. Hence, the karmic fruit of executions motivated by cruelty or vengeance will be quite different from those motivated by a sincere desire to preserve civil society from criminal depredation. This does not mean that there is no karma attached to being a ruler— as King Pasenadi, who had attained some wisdom precisely by fulfilling his royal dharma, himself acknowledged. But it does mean that we cannot apply absolute standards to the relative world. From the absolute standpoint proclaimed by the Buddha, the relative world is just what it is: radically imperfect. To try to perfect it is futile and will only entangle us in suffering.

Id. 1787-1792

Bringing his focus back to the contemporary world, Ophuls notes that the insights of the meditation cushion often seem inapplicable to the world of the marketplace and politics. As he so aptly notes, “the Buddhist perspective on politics is not easily reconciled with the political ideology of Berkeley.” Id. 1800-1801. He goes on: “[I]f you wish, you may continue to vote the straight Democratic ticket and to revile wicked Republicans at every opportunity (or vice versa). You can also oppose war, because violence is always bad, while approving abortion, because sometimes it is not (or vice versa). And so forth. But these are worldly positions, not spiritual truths, and your attachment to them will cause suffering in exact proportion to the degree of your attachment.” Id. 1801-1804. Here we see Buddhism meeting political realism, skepticism, and a dash of American pragmatism. We can only work the edges, the intentions. We come to appreciate that logical consistency is rarely found in politics. Although he does not write it, he might have also noted Emerson’s adage that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”, thereby revealing how we are truly caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of unworkable logical consistency and self-serving inconsistency. 

Because Buddha and Buddhism eschew any political ideology (certainly a form of mental attachment), we must lighten-up about our political views. Ophuls writes: “[W]e need to let go of all fixed or partisan political views. For a mind stuffed with obstinate opinions and driven by obscure obsessions will not see the world as it truly is: indelibly marked by anatta, anicca, and dukkha. Id. 1804-1806. We have no models for such probity and insight that can serve us as political models, Ophuls concludes. The sangha (community of Buddhist monks) cannot provide a model because of its otherworldly orientation. Ophuls argues, “the dharma is not, nor can it ever be, political in the usual sense—that is, concerned with reconciling contending interests, instead of fostering wisdom and virtue”. Id. 1825-1826. 

Ophuls suggests that the Buddha’s ideal of the political would be like that of Socrates in Plato’s Republic: “[L]et wisdom and virtue reign over humankind. However, like Socrates, the Buddha knew very well that philosophers would not be kings nor kings philosophers, so this ideal state of affairs—hard enough to achieve within the sangha itself—could not be imposed on entire societies.” Id. 1811-1813. What Ophuls does not say (and what I find implicitly troubling in his book title, Plato’s Revenge) is that Plato, at least in the Republic, is profoundly anti-political. Whether Plato intended the Republic as only a thought-experiment or as an actual political blueprint, he, along with Buddha and Jesus, leaves us without a working political theory. We have to continue to construct our political understanding in light of these profound insights but without explicit guidance. For more explicit guidance, we must turn elsewhere. 

Ophuls opines on further on the limits of politics from a Buddhist perspective, writing that: 

A further blow to idealism in politics is the deeply conditioned nature of existence. Because everything arises dependent on the arising of other things, social and political reality is the product of a long chain of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions produce very different realities at different times and places, and these distinct realities place strict limits on what is possible. Thus wisdom and virtue cannot be imposed by fiat on a recalcitrant world. Nor can we specify the one best political system for all people, everywhere, at all times, because what is appropriate at a given time and place depends on circumstances.


As an example of his assessment, he notes that

 “contemporary belief to the contrary notwithstanding, liberal democracy is no panacea. Without the right intellectual, cultural, and social foundation, it will fail. Imposing its trappings in defiance of conditions creates a sham democracy at best; at worst, it produces rampant corruption, ethnic conflict, and a host of other evils.”

Id. 1831-1833

Ophuls moves to a conclusion stating: 

So it may be that the best and noblest political act is to forget politics and to devote ourselves primarily to training our minds in wisdom and our hearts in compassion , even as we continue to live as householders . The above is not a call to apathy or passivity. But the Buddha’s way is to be clearly aware of the world as it actually is— not as we conceive it to be or would like it to be— and then to respond accordingly. For instance, since dukkha is intrinsic, we are never going to get rid of worldly suffering, only mitigate it to some degree . As Jesus said, “The poor ye shall always have with you,” so don’t look to Caesar to end poverty (or any other social evil) anytime soon. There is no political remedy for what ails this world, and if we imprudently try to inflict one, the inevitable result will be more of the inquisitions, gulags, revolutions, reigns of terror, and wars-to-end-all-wars that disfigure human history.

Id. 1835-1842

Add the unreality of annata (non-self), the workings of karma, and the realities of entropy and political decay, and Ophuls seems to be saying “fogetaboutit”. He writes: “Politics is also a vast and utterly impersonal process indelibly marked by dukkha, anicca, and anatta—a process that we poorly understand and can only pretend to manage, except at the margins”. Id. 1850-1852. Ophuls concludes: “Better to devote ourselves to acquiring wisdom and virtue instead of contending for wealth and power, even vicariously. This way, and this way alone, is the real political revolution and the sole remedy for human suffering.” Id. 1853-1855

But while Ophuls denigrates the possibilities for satisfactory action in politics, his actions betray his words. He has written four books about politics and social change. Ask Keynes: ideas, whether for good or ill, deeply affect us, and I doubt Ophuls would have taken the time and effort to write his books about politics if he hadn’t intended to effect political thinking and political action. And as he writes above, we can hope to affect politics “at the margins”. Is marginal control worth it? Yes, it is. Politics is about the future of the nitty-gritty world that we share outside our immediate family and friends, and one that effects our well-being and all of those with whom we share this Earth. So while Ophuls correctly notes that liberal democracy won’t work for all polities, it works for some (and for some better than others). Thus, it is worthwhile to struggle against the corruption of American democracy by the dominance of Big Money. Will we perfect it? No, but we can correct it and thereby create something better for our future. 

The quality of life we live is this world has improved because of politics (and despite it, too). The quality of life has also declined because of political decisions. But with all of the ups and downs, we enjoy a better quality of life than our ancestors. Humanity has progressed. It could fail miserably, and our current civilization certainly will and must undergo some profound changes. Those changes could go completely awry, or, as Ophuls implies in Plato’s Revenge, a changed world could retain a worthwhile quality of life with the right models of politics, ethics, and economics. We don’t know how our decisions will play out, but we will be making decisions that will shape our future, and the most important of those decisions will be made in the political arena. So while Platonists focus on the lure of appearances, Buddhist monks on Mara, and Christian monks on the “Kingdom come”, we have to live our lives in this world. 

Generation after generation, we have attempted to make life better: better by less pain, better by less violence, and better by more opportunities to explore human potential. Social and political change is a very messy process with many instances of backsliding. It’s also a process fraught with ethical dilemmas and traps that can increase our own delusion, hatred, and clinging. That’s why we must constantly seek guidance—wisdom. 

From this work by Ophuls and my other readings about Buddhism, I conclude that Buddhism has no political theory. It has no doctrine of political ethics. Yet it remains relevant to political actors because of its profound insights into human reality. As a master ethic based on the deepest insights into the human mind, the insights of Buddhism have the ability to profoundly effect any decision, whether personal or political. It doesn’t provide rules; it provides insight. While I’d like clear rules and bright lines, I find none. But my more mature self (such as it is—or isn’t) appreciates the importance and reality of the lack of timeless guidelines or fixed rules. Reality and the Buddha impose freedom and choice upon us, and we must embrace it. 

In a future essay, I’ll explore a Christian outlook on these issues. By exploring, we learn.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chicago-style Buddhism: A Review of Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D.

What questions would I like to have addressed concerning Buddhism? What perspectives would I find most helpful in better understanding Buddhist tradition and practice? What do the author and I share on our paths toward Buddhism? Let me offer a checklist and apply it to this book. 

How did the author first come into contact with Buddhism? 

Like many Western Buddhists, I first came to understand the fundamentals of the dharma by reading books. Most Western Buddhists have grown up in families that were monotheistic, culturally speaking, and we discovered our Buddhism via the printed word rather than at the neighborhood temple or war or shrine.

Stephen T. Asma. Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey (Kindle Locations 45-46). Kindle Edition.


How does the author perceive Buddhism? 

Buddhism is not a set of beliefs to be adopted by faith, but a set of practices and beliefs to be tested and then employed in our pursuit of the good life.

Id. 64-66

How does the author address the issue of temptation? 

The trained mind can rise above distraction and craving, but the normal mind is fraught with temptations, agitations, and diversions. The idea of not looking at a beautiful woman (or man) when we are clearly drawn in that direction may sound rather puritanical. But the point of the simile is not to denigrate beauty, but to isolate the tension between natural inclination and discipline. It is perfectly natural to look at beautiful people, and Buddhism doesn't require the forfeit of such trouble-free pleasures. I suspect that our very biology ensures that we'll take a quick gander at any attractive prospect, and such radar abilities probably had some evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. But if I simply cannot help myself from gawking at a stunning model on the street, then I have overturned a division of labor inside myself. I have become the servant of my desire, rather than being the master of my desire. I am being led, rather than leading.

Id. 90-95

Check. (And would I ever have such a problem? Please, no speculations here. I disavow any admissions against interest.) For mere mortals, the issue of desire is the crucial issue in life, is it not? How do we attain our desires? Should we attain our desires? How much should we pay for our desires, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of time, energy, effect on relationships, and so on? 

Does this author share a perspective with Robert Wright and me that Buddhism (and aspects of other traditions as well) is intended to overcome inheritances from natural selection that don’t work in a civilized society? 

Buddhism attempts to give us a second nature-one that writes over the old genetic and psychological code.

Id. 98

Does the author come from a religious tradition that I can identify with? 

I was ripe for such communion because I had been raised as a devout Catholic. Some people think that the conventional and conservative experience of Catholicism and the eccentric, lefty spiritualism of hippy culture are worlds apart. But, in fact, Catholics have a deep sense of mystery in the very belly of their religion. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics give themselves over to the irrational mystery, miracle, and authority. There is an undeniably conventional and institutional aspect of Catholicism, but beneath its traditionalism is a robust mystical approach to God. When I was in primary and middle school I was an altar boy and even a lector. When I began to ask philosophical questions in my early teens, my blue-collar parents knew of no other outlet for such precocious intellectualism except perhaps the priesthood. I was dutifully driven to the local seminary to meet with priests and be interviewed to see if I had the calling. I didn't.

Id. 157-163

Check. Indeed, one of my friends was once a candidate for the priesthood and now finds himself in the Buddhist camp. (N.B. Perhaps because of my Presbyterian father, or perhaps the local priest sensed that I’d was far too randy, I was never recruited. After all, the priest heard my confessions: one impure thought after another.)

Did the author explore traditions other than his native Catholicism and Buddhism? 

I . . .  graduated to a tougher-minded mysticism, reading Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, and Thomas Merton.

Id. 191-192 

Check. Merton, by the way, was a Catholic monk who explored the Buddhist and Daoist traditions and wrote eloquently about his encounters with them from his position as a Trappist monk.

If we reject the metaphysics of the monotheistic religions, is there another path that shows the way to a good life and that provides some sense of spiritual wholeness? 

Many people like myself come to Buddhism through the arts, because crafts, arts, and even meticulous chores can be expressions of spirituality. The secular and the sacred are collapsed in Zen, and that is a very attractive integration for many of us who are dissatisfied with the two-world thesis of most religions.

Id. 324-325

Can the author explain the different types and processes of Buddhist mediation?
Check. He does. 

Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and some of the Western tradition, such the thought of Spinoza? 

The Dutch/Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) offered a very Buddha-like theory (despite having never heard of the Buddha) of human happiness through intellectual enlightenment. In his famous Ethics (part V), he says that when the mind comes to understand the real causes of things—how some things could not have been otherwise and simply lie outside the realm of our control—then we cease to worry and fret over them.

Id. 724-725


Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and Stoicism?

Buddhism, like Stoicism in the West, seeks to reduce suffering, in part, by managing human emotions. There are several tactics for getting one's emotions under control. One tactic that both Buddhism and Stoicism recommend is the adoption of the long-range perspective. I'll refer to this as eon perspective. When we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, or despair, or fear, the Buddha asks us to think about the impermanence of our problems and ourselves. Similarly, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius asks us to contemplate the human drama of families, cities, and even nations that lived hundreds of years ago. They all did just as we do. They married, worked jobs, had children, loved and lost, felt great joys, killed each other, and engaged in every other emotional human endeavor. But, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, "Of all that life, not a trace survives today." It will be no different with the dramas of our own generation.

Id. 869-874

Check. Asma also notes an affinity with Epicurus, so gets even more points on my score chart. I’ve yet to find a careful, book-length exposition about the correlations between Buddhism and Classical philosophy, which someone with more skills and knowledge (and time and money) than me ought to write. 

All of these thinkers can be very austere. I cherish my loved-ones, my family, my friends. Do I have to surrender all of these relationships and go live in a forest monastery to avoid all attachments? 

Does this mean that I cannot be attached to my son? Well, if that's what it means, then I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist. No, I think the Buddha is pointing out something that we all understand at some level. He means, rather, that I cannot possess my son.

Id. 784-786

Check. I understand that. 

I know that modern science gives us the most concrete, tangible knowledge of nature. It’s far from complete, and it’s imperfect, but between a belief taken on faith, custom, or an ancient metaphysics, and natural science, I’ll take natural science. So do I have to surrender that choice to follow a Buddhist path? 

One of the reasons why I'm a Buddhist is because Buddhism makes friends of the sciences, and the sciences are the best methods we have for understanding nature.
. . . .
For Buddhism and for science, the mind is a natural rather than a supernatural entity.
. . . .
Buddhism and science share a similar approach to phenomena, an approach that can be called naturalism. Naturalism rejects (or at least brackets) supernatural explanations of the world and its occupants (e.g., us). Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile the metaphysical assertions of faith with the experimental findings of science.
Id. 879-881; 988-989; 1064-1066

Check. The natural world doesn’t make sense without Darwin, Einstein, and the quantum thinkers, to mention just a few fields of investigation. 

What about karma and reincarnation? That stuff seems pretty spooky to me, at least in some sense. 

[T]he only really compelling interpretation of karma—one that doesn't conflict with science—is the radical reinterpretation that asks us to think about karma as a psychological fact rather than a metaphysical one. For example, it is possible to say that one's early lack of mental control and discipline results in a later batch of suffering—perhaps I never disciplined my cravings for fast food as a young man, and now I'm an obese older man who lives like a slave to French-fries. Or my younger taste for drama and negative attention has resulted in a later relationship pattern wherein I only try to date married women. This more naturalized version of karma is the only one that seems reasonably defensible.

Id. 1123-1128

Check. Although some Western Buddhist thinkers, I believe, would argue with this limited conception of karma and reincarnation, such as B. Alan Wallace. However, this more conservative approach is the easiest to accept and incorporate into our life and thought. 

Let’s go back to the austerity and detachment thing for a moment—such scary words! What about some of the good things in life, like art? Must we surrender our appreciation for beauty and meaning to non-attachment? 

Appreciating art and making art are meditations that liberate us from self-absorption.
I think the role of art is especially important in Buddhism, because Buddhism embraces a nondualistic metaphysics. In some supernatural religious frameworks art is a gateway or communication to a divine realm, but in Buddhism the artistic experience is "naturalized" like everything else. This is why Buddhists have always been more interested in the psychology of art. Art is a meditation that brings one in contact with the formless nondiscursive mind. So, it's not a mere communication with a transcendent reality, it is a transcendent reality. As an analogy, I think "memory" becomes more important in the secular Confucian framework of the Chinese, because there is no supernatural immortality—only an "afterlife" in the memories of your descendants.

Id. 1064-1066; 1173-1177

Check. In fact, Buddhist art runs a gamut from the detailed intricacy of the Tibetan tradition to the negative fields of a Zen garden. As Asma notes: 

Mandalas, for example, are wonderful examples of the Indian idea (in both Hinduism and Buddhism) that the macrocosm can be found inside the microcosm. To paraphrase Gottfried Leibniz, "every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe." And in Tibetan Buddhism the mandalas also convey the Buddhist teaching of impermanence (anicca), because when the elaborate and agonizing sand-paintings are finally finished, they are immediately and intentionally swept away and destroyed. . .  . [T]he Far Eastern traditions of Daoism and Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, have turned away from the spiraling complexity of forms. Negative space and the aesthetics of minimalism help to convey the equally powerful emptiness.
Id. 1189-1192


Can Buddhism help me deal with the difficult people (or chose your more apt and colorful description) that I struggle with? I need help!

If I don't feel genuine kindness (metta) toward the bully who's browbeating me, that's understandable—but I can still act as if I feel it. There's nothing disingenuous about this. We're so hung up by our Romantic ideas about acting from our authentic feelings, and expressing ourselves authentically, that we forget how new habits of behavior can slowly transform our internal habits of the heart.
. . . .
Spinoza noticed the same thing and gave the same reasons for recommending the goodwill strategy. "He who lives according to the guidance of reason strives, as far as he can, to repay the other's hate, anger, and disdain toward him, with love or nobility" (Ethics IV.46).

Id. 1419-1421; 1458-1459

Can that work? 

Spinoza, like the Buddha, adds that a kind and noble person will be more joyful (because joy is a harmonic state of the healthy psyche), so such a person will be more powerful and effective in pursuit of his goals.

Id. 1461-1462

Check. It seems like it can work--most of the time.

But what if either on a personal level or on a political level, returning loving-kindness to mistreatment or exploitation doesn’t stop profound harm, even death? 

[T]he overall critique-Buddhism is too peaceful-is worth examining. . . . The Buddha and the dharma also represent sources of strength. Power is necessary, because life is struggle. Even the ultimate goal of detached equanimity can only come after substantial struggle.

Id. 1740-1741; 1748-1749

Stop! Only half-credit (I don’t know how to give a “half-check”). Buddhism, even less than Christianity, doesn’t have a complete and compelling theory of politics to govern political actors on issues of war and peace. This challenge isn’t unique to Asma. As far as I know, Buddhism simply doesn’t have an articulated theory of politics. Islam melds politics into religion, and this can lead to great problems, as we see around the world today. Christianity skirts the issue with the doctrine of the Two Swords (sacred and secular) and the Two Cities (St. Augustine), which are based on a couple of sayings in the Gospels that provide a shaky foundation for any definitive doctrines. Among those who call themselves Christians, we see a spectrum that runs from pacifist to warmonger. I believe that the tragic, ironic, and realist views of Reinhold Niebuhr and Max Weber (commenting from a secular perspective) provide the most compelling responses to these ethical concerns, but no easy answers. I don’t know that Buddhism offers any authoritative answers. Someone, help me here! (I will be investigating the work of William (Patrick) Ophuls, Western political scientist-philosopher and Buddhist practitioner-teacher. I will report what I find in his work The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, which includes an essay on “The Politics of Meditation”.) 

The author came to my attention in the NYT writing an article about John Dewey’s pragmatism and its reception in China, where the Asma has lived and taught. So how does contemporary China relate to Buddhism? 

In previous ages, one would, if gripped by a philosophical mood, simply turn to the great indigenous works of Chinese intellectual culture: Kongzi's (Confucius's) Analects, Laozi's Daodejing, the Buddha's Sutras, and so forth. But these days such fountains of wisdom are like trickling rivulets in the landscape of religious competition, and the Christian Bible is often more readily available to the average spiritual searcher.

Id. 1823-1825

Check, but I’d like more. I suspect an entire book—or more—could be written about culture, ethics, and religions now afield in China and how these are changing—as the very landscape is changing—at a dizzying speed. What ethics work for hyper-capitalism, hyper-consumerism with Chinese characteristics?  

But can I retain what’s valuable in my Western Christian-liberal tradition if I take this Buddhist path? 

Buddhism, like Christianity, pushes us away from the natural biases of human nature-it pushes us beyond the usual concentric circles of value that surround our own families and seeks to expand the circle to include all people, all animals, all beings. The West has been pursuing this same model, in secular form, for several centuries now. We can trace the development from Luther's Reformation up through Enlightenment Kantian morality that asked us to treat all people equally as "ends in themselves" rather than "means" to some end. And after Immanuel Kant, we have the utilitarian tradition that asked us to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and finally the "fairness" philosophy of John Rawls and the rejection of personal bias, nepotism, favoritism, preferential treatment, and partiality. Discordant on almost every other point of comparison, Buddhism, Christianity, and Western liberalism all make strange bedfellows on this one point of egalitarianism.


Finally, I like red meat and I cannot lie. Must I limit myself to rabbit food if I want to follow the Buddhist path? Can I follow a Chicago diet of brats and beer? 

Animal suffering is to be avoided at all costs. But the idea that Buddhists have always been, and always should be, vegetarians is pure myth. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, ate meat—he even died eating meat.[SNG: not a great plug for Buddhist meat-eating.] My Buddhist friends in Cambodia eat meat. Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat. Meat, contrary to popular opinion, is not the problem for Buddhists. The problem is causing unneeded pain to animals, so if we can kill them humanely, then the ethical transgression is averted. In the West these days, you will meet many Buddhists who are smug lettuce-nibblers, and that's fine. But be assured, it is not Buddhism per se that compels their diet.

Id. 300-304

Check, thankfully. I didn’t see anything about whiskey except in the title, but I take the ban on intoxicants to be a ban on intoxication, so a beer or glass of wine—or whiskey if you’re made of sterner stuff than I am—seems to me okay.

I trust that it comes as no surprise that at the end of this review I say that I enjoyed and benefited from this book a great deal. It’s always nice to meet a fellow seeker exploring the same paths.