“I vow to help all Beings overcome their suffering. I vow to understand and overcome delusion and egoic confusion” – from The Bodhisattva Vow
In this current era of intensified political debate, something said from my idiosyncratic Buddhist-influenced perspective may be of interest. I teach meditation and consciousness, and in my classes, somewhere along the way, usually I will say, “ I try to stay away from politics, but this is a class in consciousness, and politics is about consciousness.” I then talk about the environment or health care or education policy or poverty or war or capitalism vs. socialism, because all of these issues are about consciousness, but are commonly understood to be solely political. This is a shame.
Our politics might be much more productive if these issues were understood to be fundamentally about consciousness. The way politics is typically practiced and argued, it is more an exercise in unconsciousness. Positions based in bias, prejudice, self-interest and opinion are often backed by little more, than, well, opinion. And that’s where Buddhism has something valuable to say. Much opinion could accurately be defined – borrowing from a phrase in the Bodhisattva Vow – as “delusion and egoic confusion.” And it is the vow of the Bodhisattva to awaken out of and confront delusion and egoic confusion wherever it occurs.
Buddhism, at its most basic level, can be understood as the study and practice of awakening out of delusion and egoic confusion, which Buddhists see as the source of human suffering. It is a very pragmatic and even scientific approach to life. It stipulates the problem – human suffering – and then sets out to achieve understanding and action. It seeks the cause and solution. The Western scientific method, including psychology and sociology, does this as well, but Western science typically brings only observation and the intellectual mind to bear.
Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that it is only by bringing ALL the faculties of mind to bear, including emotion and intuition, that the problems of the human condition can be resolved. It is only when there is a harmonious blending of all the mental faculties into full awareness that we awaken into the essence or truth of anything. Great Western scientists also understand this. Albert Einstein is an example. His insights into quantum physics and relativity are excellent examples of wholistic science, where he felt, as well as thought, his way to revolutionary breakthroughs.
Human psychology and society are principle concerns for Buddhism precisely because of its central focus on the cause and resolution of human suffering. Humans create a great deal of unnecessary suffering for themselves and others, and they do it believing a lot of ideas they have learned that are the equivalent to “delusion and egoic confusion,” in other words – nonsense. We believe what we believe about human nature and society for little more reason than it is what we believe. It is what we learned from the social, cultural, educational and personal egoic influences that created our opinions.
In the political sphere, these opinions tend toward one of two polar positions – either preserving the individual’s advantage, perspective, possessions and power, which then leads to fundamentally egocentric, conservative, libertarian, capitalistic political/economic views, or egalitarianism, which tends to lead toward fundamentally liberal, collectivistic, socialistic views. Either one, seems to contain certain truths while, when taken to extreme, lead to their own unique forms of human delusion and suffering. We wrangle back and forth, arguing and fighting, right vs. left, libertarian conservativism vs. socialistic liberalism.
Now for most people, these psychological/political positions are irreconcilable. We see them as contradictions that have little to no common ground. Our political process seeks for one position to prevail. If the conflicting forces cancel each other out, our political process seeks some compromise that tends to eviscerate the essential truths of either position. This leaves a confused mash that has little to no hope of really understanding or resolving the particular issue of human suffering that is under consideration. As a result, our society and our politics are a mess.
I believe Buddhism has a lot to say about this problem, as Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “the middle way,” and the middle way is about seeing plainly the truths and delusions contained in any position. It believes that only in realizing a synthesis of the essential truths of all possibilities can tranquility, both personally and socially, be found. Buddhism is very much about taking what seems to be contradiction and seeing into its underlying unity as a paradox.
This means that both the individual and the whole can only be honored and protected through recognition of the opposite poles of any position along with the center that connects them. An important Buddhist teaching is that there is no circumference without a center and there is no center without a circumference comprised of all the points on the circumference. On any particular issue, we are simultaneously at the center (egocentric to the issue) and on the circumference (a position amongst many, dependent on the positioning of others.)
The truth is that human beings are both individuals and a collective. There are truths about what individuals need in order not to create or be in suffering and there are truths about what a society needs not to create or be in suffering. Both elements need to be honored if we are to arrive at personal and social enlightenment, which means – happiness – the pursuit of which is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, along with life and liberty. An individual must have the right of their individuality. This is a truth. And a society must be built fundamentally as a harmonious collective in which all the individuals comprising it are safe, secure and happy to experience both their individual and social well being. This also is true.
Is such a political philosophy possible? I believe, yes. And it might be called Libertarian Socialism, turning a seeming contradiction into a unifying paradox. Individual human beings have the inalienable right to their own individuality and no society ought to impinge upon that individuality unless it is impinging on the individual “life liberty and pursuit of happiness” of others. Equally true, society has a right and need to be, in a sense, a collective Bodhisattva, existing to facilitate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the collective of individuals, vowing to relieve suffering caused by egoic, that is self-interested-only, individuals and groups.
Individual identity, liberty, energy and creativity need fostering. So too, social harmony found in universal material security, health, safety and the provision of the resources for individual fulfillment are necessary. This requires the guarantee of personal safety, education, health care, aesthetics, vocational opportunity, community support, freedom from want, personal growth and wealth, and manifest respect for every individual provided within a relative egalitarianism. All these are necessary to eliminate suffering caused by the egoic confusion that tries to make me and mine superior to you and yours.
Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings deserve and need respect to be their own unique manifestation as well as to have their place secure within a compassionate community, a harmonious whole. This is not only true for humans, but for all life forms, as well as the planet, and indeed, the universe. Individuality and interdependent unity are the simultaneous truths of all levels of existence, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. This is the Buddhist principle of Interbeing. For humanity to survive and prosper, it is of the utmost importance that our politics be based in a vow to help all Beings overcome their suffering.
Is such a philosophy that can be described as both libertarian and socialist, the full honoring of the individual and the collective, possible? I believe absolutely yes. But you have to meditate on it to really see it.