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Be Peace Embodied

CHARLES R. JOHNSON on the principles of enlightened politics

During this presidential election year, which many political commentators tell us may prove to be one of the most polarizing, divisive and rancorous in American history, followers of Buddhist dharma will, like all citizens, be faced with what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once called “the agony of choice.” To my eye, this is the most glorious of civilization’s regular trials, one that defines the nature of a democratic republic. For when the framers of the Constitution declared that the nation’s president “shall hold his office during the term of four years,” they ingeniously guaranteed that a healthy degree of quadrennial change, suspense, tumult, renewal and spirited debate would be inscribed into our political and social lives. Put another way, American voters, if they take their civic duty seriously, can never rest. Every four years they must decide on the direction of their collective destiny. Twenty-five times in each century they must define for themselves their understanding of the “good life,” and vote for candidates and proposals that embody their vision of what this country and its influence on the world should be.

Yet for all its virtues, this necessary process, which the media frequently presents as a highly competitive “battle” or “war,” can fuel the most ugly partisan passions, fears, frustrations, incivility and forms of dualism we are likely to find in the realm of samsara. If perceived through the distorting lens of conflict-laden language and concepts that deliberately pit one citizen against another (“Speech has something in it like a spider’s web,” Thomas Hobbes once remarked), politics divides people on election night into “winners” and “losers,” and creates bitterness and attachment that can cloud consciousness and cripple spiritual development, though one of our greatest American leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proved time and again that this need not be so.

On December 20, 1956, the day the Montgomery bus boycott ended, King—whose model for nonviolent civil disobedience in Alabama drew inspiration from Gandhi’s struggle with the British—said, “We must seek an integration based on mutual respect. As we go back to the buses, let us be loving enough to turn an enemy into a friend.” Though his home was bombed and his wife and baby endangered during the campaign to end segregation in the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” the 26-year-old King never forgot that “all life is interrelated,” nor that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He called this the “beloved community,” which in my view is simply sangha by another name.

If we can, through the kind of mindfulness exhibited by Dr. King during one of the most revolutionary moments in American history, remember that politics is merely the skin of social life beneath which we find a more profound experience of ourselves and others, then our Constitution-mandated sea change every four years can potentially be an uplifting experience rather than a spiritually debilitating one. For as the Buddhist nun Jingnuo wrote four centuries ago, “If you bring to everything an illumined mind, you won’t get lost.”

The buddhadharma captures such course-correcting illumination in the terse Pali description of existence known as “the three marks”: anicca, dukkha, anatta, often translated as, “Life is transient, sorrowful and selfless.” In this eidetic formulation about the marks that stain all phenomena, anatta reminds us that the belief in a substantive, enduring self is an illusion, while dukkha emphasizes the first noble truth of universal suffering based on selfish desire and clinging to the things of this world (including our thoughts and feelings about those things). Both the latter terms are experientially and logically grounded in the first mark, anicca, which means “impermanent,” and speaks to Shakyamuni Buddha’s insight that, “whatever is subject to arising must also be subject to ceasing.”

With that general statement, the Buddha is referring to everything in our experience—all material and immaterial objects, men and women, societies and states of mind, legislation and governments. Any physicist would add that even the thirteen-billion-year-old universe itself will one day be reduced to black holes that will eventually disintegrate into stray particles, and these, too, will decay. From the moment of our so-called “birth” we have been dying, “changing all the time,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “Not a single element remains the same for two consecutive moments.” In essence, we are verbs, not nouns; processes, not products. Therefore, the Diamond Sutra ends with this memorable verse:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

We can all understand this. There is nothing particularly mystical about the fundamental nature of reality being change, process and transformation. Nor is there anything esoteric in the wisdom that we err if we desire or try to cling to evanescent phenomena that change faster than we can chase them. In the buddhadharma, the true nature of things is shunyata, Sanskrit for “emptiness.” But we would be wrong if we interpreted this emptiness as a lack, or as vacuous. In his outstanding book Nonduality, scholar David Loy provides a concise account of shunyata: “It comes from the root shunya, which means “to swell” in two senses: hollow or empty, and also like the womb of a pregnant woman. Both are implied in the Mahayana usage: the first denies any fixed self-nature to anything; the second implies that this is also fullness and limitless possibility, for lack of any fixed characteristics allows the infinite diversity of impermanent phenomena.” Those who experience shunyata know that all things have eternally been in a perfect state of tranquility, and that as Buddhaghosa says in the Visuddhimagga:

Suffering alone exists, none who suffers;
The deed there is, but no doer thereof;
Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;
The Path there is, but none who travel it.  

In The Buddhist Vision, Alex Kennedy points out that the recognition of impermanence or emptiness necessarily leads to the nonconceptual intuition that all perceived conditioned and transitory things are interdependent. Thich Nhat Hanh’s word for this is “interbeing,” a neologism he coined to express the traditional Buddhist understanding of the concatenated links in dependent origination. Kennedy says, “When we analyze any object, we can never come to a substance beyond which our analysis cannot penetrate. We can never find anything conditioned which has an underlying substantial reality…. All things, whether subject or object, are processes linked together in an intricate network of mutual conditions…. The ordinary man is distracted by the bright surface of the world and mistakes this for reality.”

All things are empty in themselves, only existing—as Dr. King said—in a delicate “network of mutuality” where, as we are told in the Visuddhimagga, “it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter.” After awakening, or the experience of nirvana, which in Sanskrit literally means to “blow out” selfish desire and the illusory belief in a separate sense of one’s life, the student of the Way experiences ultimate reality as a “we-relation.” “Perfect peace,” said Shakyamuni, “can dwell only where all vanity has disappeared.”

However, in Buddhism we must acknowledge two levels of truth. First, there is ultimate, ontological truth. In The Long Discourses of the Buddha, Maurice Walshe explains that on this level, existence is experienced as “a mere process or physical and mental phenomena within which, or beyond which, no real ego-entity nor any abiding substance can be found.” Secondly, there is conventional or relative truth, described by Walshe as the samsaric world “according to which people and things exist just as they appear to the naïve understanding.” For myself, I enjoy thinking of these two truths in terms of our knowing the subatomic realm of electrons and positrons exists, but in our everyday lives we necessarily conduct ourselves in terms of Newtonian physics, because if we step out a tenth floor window or in front of a fast-moving truck, we will go splat.

The great dialectician Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, demonstrated that these two truths are not in conflict, because samsara is nirvana. The sacred is the profane. The everyday is the holy. The dream world of samsara, which is the world of so much suffering and the world of relative truth, is the projection of our delusions and selfish desires onto nirvana. Yet samsara is logically prior to and necessary for the awakening to nirvana. The important point here, says John Blofeld in The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, is that “the enlightened man is capable of perceiving both unity and multiplicity without the least contradiction between them.” His words echo in the lambent verse of Jingnuo, which appears in the wonderful book edited by Beata Grant, Daughters of Emptiness: Poems by Buddhist Nuns of China: “Everything is in the ordinary affairs of the everyday world.” That is, if one is guided by mindfulness, the transcendent is found no less in quotidian tasks such as serving tea, motorcycle maintenance or the arranging of rock gardens than in the recitation of mantras; no less in washing the dishes, writing this article or actively participating in mercurial political affairs than in the oldest monastic rituals.

Insofar as Buddhist practitioners grasp reality as a we-relation, they are unshakeable in the experience of the Other as themselves. Thus, in the social and political world of samsara, there can be but a single proper response to all sentient beings, regardless of their political affiliations or views: compassion and lovingkindness. That ethical posture is codified in the bodhisattva vows and Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

First of all I should make an effort
To meditate upon the equality between self and others:
I should protect all beings as I do myself
Because we are all equal in (wanting) pleasure and (not wanting) pain.

Hence I should dispel the misery of others
Because it is suffering, just like my own,
And I should benefit others
Because they are sentient beings, just like myself.

When both myself and others
Are similar in that we wish to be happy,
What is so special about me?
Why do I strive for my happiness alone?

For those following the Way, individual salvation is never enough; they work tirelessly for the liberation, not just of men and women, but of all sentient beings. Politics, therefore, offers the opportunity to use samsaric means for nirvanic ends—or what Shakyamuni might call “skillful means” that adapt the dharma to those imperfect tools we are obliged to work with in the relative-phenomenal world. The step on the Eightfold Path called “right conduct” demands such conscientious involvement in the relative-phenomenal realm, for we ourselves are inseparable from that world and can live here and now, nowhere else. But it is how the dharma student works in the world that is of all importance.

He or she will, I believe, bring one dimension of “right view” to the political arena—that is, the understanding that our perspectives and views on a particular issue are not the only veridical or possible ones. The follower of the Way will practice civility and “right speech,” which the Mahasatipatthana Sutra says involves “refraining from lying, refraining from slander, refraining from harsh speech, refraining from frivolous speech.” He or she will listen with full empathy to the political Other, listening as carefully as they do when following their own breaths and thoughts in meditation, for egoless listening is one of the attributes of love.

They will dispassionately examine evidence, tame their minds, know where their thoughts have come from, and be able to distinguish what in the mind is the product of past conditioning and received opinion (political ads, propaganda), what thoughts are genuinely their own, and what their desires may be projecting on reality. (We all learned the hard way the importance of this kind of epistemological humility when members of the current administration, driven by their desire for change in the Middle East, rushed into a war with Iraq based on less than reliable “intelligence.”)

And if peace is their goal, they will in the field of politics be themselves peace embodied. They will work indefatigably in the present moment, but without the beggarly attachment to reward, recognition or future results. And when disappointment comes, as it must—as it did so often to those unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement—Buddhists doing political work would do well not to despair, thinking, “I have lost, they have won,” but remember that no victory won for the sangha or “beloved community” can last forever (nor any defeat), because every worldly thing is stained by anicca. In “defeat,” if it comes, they might find solace in a judicious distinction that my friend, mystery writer Candace Robb, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in Seattle, makes when she says, “Pain is something that comes in life, but suffering is voluntary or optional.” (Or on their refrigerator door they might tape this quote from 75-year-old Chan master Sheng Yen: “I follow four dictates: face it, accept it, deal with it, then let it go.”)

Finally, they will take as a reliable guide for spiritually informed political action the statement Dr. King made in his stirring Nobel Prize acceptance speech exactly forty years ago:

"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial and moral question of our time….The foundation of such a method is love…. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

Dr. King’s political objectives in 1964 were, at bottom, of a piece with bodhisattva goals, and they complement nicely the ones Buddhists in the countries of the Far East have traditionally worked to achieve. In Inner Revolution, Robert Thurman informs us that Nagarjuna was the mentor of a great king of a dynasty in southern India, King Udayi Shatavahana, sometime between the first century b.c.e. and the second century c.e. Nagarjuna first instructed the king on what he needed to know for the king’s own liberation, then he advised him on how a ruler should oversee an enlightened society. He said, “O King! Just as you love to consider what to do to help yourself, so should you love to consider what to do to help others!” According to Thurman, Nagarjuna “taught his friend the king how to care for every being in the kingdom: by building schools everywhere and endowing honest, kind and brilliant teachers; by providing for all his subjects’ needs, opening free restaurants and inns for travelers; by tempering justice with mercy, sending barbers, doctors, and teachers to the prisons to serve the inmates; by thinking of each prisoner as his own wayward child, to be corrected in order to return to free society and use his or her precious human life to attain enlightenment.”

Thurman says, “This activism is implicit in the earlier teachings of the Buddha, and in his actions, though his focus at that time was on individual transformation, the prerequisite of social transformation.” In our brief passage through this life, we must have both inner and outer revolutions, since the former is essential for deepening the latter. When we no longer divide the great emptiness, shunyata, into “this” and “that,” we are empowered to reduce without discrimination the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms of existence, as Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks demonstrated so beautifully during the Vietnam War, coming to the aid of orphans, widows and the wounded on both sides of the civil war that devastated their country.

Naturally, lay Buddhists will need the support of their sangha as they engage in political action. No one understands better the importance of taking refuge in the community of dharma followers than Buddhist monk and mendicant Claude AnShin Thomas. Last year he completed the building of a meditation center in Florida as a place where activists can momentarily retire to refresh and renew themselves.

Thomas understands suffering as a teacher and “sangha as the entire spectrum of the universe.” In his upcoming memoir, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, he says, “As a Buddhist, I cannot think myself into a new way of living, I have to live myself into a new way of thinking.” That wisdom is captured concisely in his reflections on how dharma followers approach the goal of peace:

"Peace is not an idea. Peace is not a political movement, not a theory or a dogma. Peace is a way of life: living mindfully in the present moment…. It is not a question of politics, but of actions. It is not a matter of improving a political system or even taking care of homeless people alone. These are valuable but will not alone end war and suffering. We must simply stop the endless wars that rage within…. Imagine, if everyone stopped the war in themselves—there would be no seeds from which war could grow."

Charles Johnson, a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle, has written four novels, including Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. He has also written two short story collections and a number of nonfiction books, including Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. 


Originally published in the July 2004 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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