“I am not only a socialist but also a bit leftist… When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent.” – Dalai Lama
The word “Buddhism” comes from the root word “Buddh” meaning “awaken” and “ism,” the suffix meaning a doctrine, a practice, adherence to a system of principles. Often the suffix “ism” is connected to political philosophies, as in this country we can say that in an election we are asked to endorse candidates who represent conservatism or progressivism. One current progressive candidate for President has, at times, identified himself as an advocate for Democratic Socialism, the political perspective that guides our allies in Western Europe. This is a courageous declaration in American politics for Socialism and those who espouse its tenants have been slandered viciously in the history of modern American politics as “Commies,” “Bolsheviks,” even as traitors. It therefore is very instructive to have a beacon of Democratic justice and compassion, such as the Dalai Lama, own Socialism as his political philosophy.
I too share the Dalai Lama’s point of view. I have identified myself as a follower and practitioner of both Buddhist and Democratic Socialist principles for they are quite compatible. I agree with the Dalai Lama that it is a matter of religious principle to engage actively the political process in the confrontation and overcoming of economic and other forms of injustice. It is the “awakened” thing to do, for in the Buddhist context, to be awakened is to see the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life and to realize that only the truth of unity leads to peace. Nature is a unity, a balance in which each takes only what they need, and so a harmonious balance is sustained. As a favorite bumper sticker of mine declares, “One People, One Planet, One Future” and the political philosophy that best shares this perspective is most certainly Democratic Socialism, and I see it as an awakened political philosophy that progresses the ideal of a harmonious, peaceful, sustainable human society. Conservatism, on the other hand, seeks to conserve a system that has shown itself to be based in aggressive nationalism, classism, prejudices, inequity and exploitation.
Examining the term Democratic Socialism, Democratic means favoring political, economic and social equity and justice, with full participation of all citizens in the political life of the society, respecting individualism; while Socialism means governmental regulation of privately owned commerce toward a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of a society. It is not communistic; rather, it establishes a range of distribution that allows for wealth but not poverty. It seems that Democratic and Socialism naturally go together, one representing political egalitarianism and the other economic egalitarianism. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a system that not only allows for, but favors wealth. It is organized so as to concentrate great wealth in the hands of a small segment of the society to the necessary consequence of significant poverty for others, and can be significantly oligarchical and anti-democratic.
Capitalism, per se, meaning private ownership of commerce, as a strategy for engaging entrepreneurial energy and creativity is a good concept. Unfettered Capitalism, however, inevitably becomes a ravenous carnivore without limit on its appetites, necessitating victims of its appetites and is a very poor model upon which to organize a society. No such creature exists in Nature except humans when their society is organized around selfish ego rather than compassionate fairness. It is not an awakened philosophy and the Dali Lama sees it as contrary to religious principles, as does the current Pope. They urge us to follow compassionate unity rather than selfish separateness. If we look to Denmark, France, Germany, even to some extent, our neighbor Canada, all being governed by some expression of Democratic Socialism, we can see this blending of capitalist creativity and reward with compassionate fairness. There is a fundamental belief in human dignity and full participation and access to the fruits of society as a human right not as a prize for the most blessed and aggressive.
“There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. This would nevertheless require a courageous change of attitude on the part of political leaders. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!
The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!” – Pope Francis
The people and the political leaders of the United States are faced with finding within themselves the courage, honesty and wisdom to change their beliefs and biases, as the Pope suggests, to create a society that is more equitable and conscious, that recognizes that the corporate capitalism that has become a sort of unquestioned religion of our society, has created exactly “The culture of selfishness and individualism…(that) is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world.” We are in need of a social evolution that is peaceful and democratic, for peace and democracy is what we seek, and only what Buddhism calls “right” means can achieve right ends, “right” meaning compassionate and aligned with truth. I choose to use the word evolution rather than revolution deliberately because it is not a change of governmental system that we need, only an expanding of the consciousness of the democratic system we already have.
Our problem is that the democracy of our American Revolution is struggling to evolve in the manner I believe the founders intended when they enshrined principles such as “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The conservative forces of this nation have always fought against the true realization of the promise of “we the people” free of conditions or exceptions. And sadly, they often do so hiding behind manifestations of religion quite antithetical to what the Pope and the Dalai Lama espouse.
The struggle for full sharing of a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty continues. Awakened politics is to engage in the peaceful struggle to realize this more perfect union, and I suggest that the American people look to the sort of Democratic Socialism that our friends in Western Europe have adopted and that one candidate in this American Presidential election has courageously espoused for the more than forty years of his public service. This is socialism that is no threat to individual expression, creativity or a comfortable style of life, it only expands the circle to whom these blessings are available.
Religious people must struggle to solve these problems… If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having… That anger is directed toward the social injustice itself, along with the struggle to correct it, so the anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions.” – Dalai Lama
The democratic elective process our forefathers bequeathed us gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promise of “we the people,” but only if we engage our democratic system through peaceful political action and free our election process and governmental institutions from special-interest domination. We must direct whatever energy of anger we feel towards social injustice into bringing about this social evolution. Wecan achieve this evolution, inspired by the non-violent principles of the Dalai Lama and the Pope, principles shared and lived by Martin Luther King – a man who understood fully his religious duty to engage social injustice with peaceful anger so as to bring about the fruits of “liberty and justice for all.” This is awakened politics.
In this Christmas season and in the months and years to come, if we work energetically motivated by “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All,” we can create a human culture of solidarity that Pope Francis assures us “leads to a more habitable world … seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!”