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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.