“We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness if we want to have a future, if we want to save ourselves and the planet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Dharma is a Sanskrit word; its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support,” and In Buddhism that which is being upheld or supported is the balance and order of nature and the universe. The word dharma as it applies in Buddhism refers both to this cosmic harmony and to the teachings of Buddhism, the purposes of which are to reveal and uphold that which is the natural order, or “original nature,” sometimes referred to as the “Way.” These are all phrases one sees frequently in Buddhist teachings and make of Buddhism very much a cosmology, even a quasi-scientific inquiry into existence. It is also a psychology based in the principle that human emotional suffering is caused by a person being out of harmony with their original nature – to the consequence of living in ignorance (another oft-seen word in the Buddhist canon) of the truth of who they are – and this ignorance leads to suffering. As it is a psychology, it approaches the problem of human suffering in a very medical fashion – following proper diagnosis there is a treatment plan to restore health. In this model psychological health means equanimity, harmony, balance, and well-being, as well as expanding capacities for insight. Meditation, mindfulness and applied compassion for self and others are the medicine. Health is full human potential realized in enlightenment – not as something gained, but rather, as what is revealed as already within us.
As it is a profoundly insightful psychology, Buddhism can also be seen as a political philosophy – pointing to how collectives of humans cause suffering by lacking in harmony and compassion, functioning in ignorance of the natural balance and conscious interdependence that would be the hallmark of healthy and peaceful communities. This disharmony arises as groups of individuals identify themselves as more important and correct in their world-view than others who are seen as incorrect, wrong, even dangerous. Competition is the result, friendly or hostile, dominating much of human interaction at both the individual and collective level. This then is clearly the realm of politics. The more different in form, style and beliefs, the more competitive a group is with those of a different identity group, the more likely the politics will be hostile even escalating into violence, sometimes war.
Another problem arises out of seeing the non-human world as separate from and inferior to the human realm, valued only in relationship to its immediate benefit to humans. The entire non-human world is viewed in categories of usefulness or threat and our attention goes to these two categories while a very big third category, that which is viewed as neither a valuable resource nor dangerous threat, goes mostly ignored. The whole of the natural world is largely overlooked by the average modern human as just the background to their day-to-day life, once again, with some particular aspect noticed only if it rises to the level of pleasant or unpleasant as determined by a person’s set of conditioned judgments. Gravely consequential ignorance of the systemic wholeness of nature leads humans to see the natural world as separate objects existing with particular value, challenge or irrelevance. The result is human activity tearing apart this systemic wholeness, throwing ecosystems out of balance, threatening the ability to thrive of all elements of that system, including, eventually, humanity.
So – in these expanding circles of identification, alienation, or indifference human affairs gets conducted. Those that are of “my” or “our” circle of identification, we give value. Those that are perceived as “other” and threatening are treated with hostility; those that are of neither positive nor negative category are used, abused or ignored. This is the state of human conduct and evolution currently. It is the state of our politics and it is not in harmony with Dharma.
Dharma is the truth of the way things are, and this truth is that all that exists in the universe is in a relationship of interconnectedness and interdependence – nothing arises or exists in isolation from the whole and its constituent systems. For humans this natural order manifests in expanding circles of identification where the first circle is personal – within ourselves – the tensions and tears between our dominant egoic self and our underlying fundamental natural being. The next circle is interpersonal, and here we fall out of harmony because we mistake as our highest priority the maintenance of the importance of “me.” Even family members who love each other very much do great harm as they joust with each other for their own perceived importance and “rightness.” This, of course, requires that we diminish others’ importance and make them wrong. This same dynamic applies then to groups of individuals identified politically or religiously or ethnically or any number of ways we segregate into shared identity groupings. So too, it is with nations and regions of humanity. So too, it is with humanity and the non-human animal world, and with nature as a whole.
We fail to recognize that we are all in this life together and every person, every animal, every ecosystem are all intertwined in destiny. Ultimately, the dharma teaches us there is one interconnected, interdependent system that is the universe; the one flowing system of energy out of which all creation unfolds. Dharma teaches us that we are not a person in the universe; rather we are the universe happening as a person, just like the universe happens as a tree or a cow, a river or a planet – all happening within the universe in its unfolding. No person, cow, tree, river or planet happens in isolation. Every atom and every form made of atoms is connected in an unfolding of the evolution of the Universe, and each form is in a relationship of connection and interdependence with all forms. This is the Way. It is dharma. The Universe evolves as a perfectly balanced system. This, however, is not how people experience themselves, their identity groups, their nations, or for that matter, trees, squirrels, cows, rivers, or the planet. The conventional way is to experience all these as separate phenomena that can be picked through and valued or devalued in relationship to their perceived value to me and my relevant collective “us.” Buddhism teaches this is ignorance and it will lead to suffering. The history of humanity certainly stands as evidence of this truth.
Bringing this out of the cosmological and back to the political, the dharma teaches us that we must completely respect each circle of identification on this planet if we are to have a peaceful and safe planet or nation or community. But this is not the way things are. We individually and collectively are held too tightly by what Buddhism refers to as “egoic delusion,” the delusion of separateness and with it the tendency to value me and mine, while devaluing or even holding in hostility that which is not in my egoic circle. This is the karma of conflict and suffering. To alter this karma, we must look to dharma. We must realize universal respect for the truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence as the only way out of the karmic circle of conflict and suffering.
Thich Nhat Hanh advises us, “If you’re a politician, you might want to learn the Buddhist way of negotiation. Restoring communication and bringing back reconciliation is clear and concrete in Buddhism.” Reconciliation for the harms we have inflicted, past and present, and to bring together in sincere communication those who have been in conflict through ignorance of our common source and destiny, is the only way to move toward a future of peace, harmony and happiness. As we engage politically with all levels of our interaction, including with the planet that is our shared home with all life, we will do well to remember this dharma.
Thankfully, the evolution of human society has been unconsciously actualizing the need to expand the circle of “us” to include those who had been excluded, and so the ignorant boundaries of slavery, racism, sexism, and even to some extent nationalism have been dissolved or are in the process of dissolution as the human species moves closer to unity and harmony. Yet, so much more consciousness is needed if we are to fulfill the dharma of a harmonious planet in balance, health and peace. In the realm of politics, this means we must support and elevate leaders and policy makers who hold as a sacred mission the tearing down of false barriers and hierarchies. We must support leaders who bring human communities together in wisdom and compassion and who support the necessity of holding to a sacred relationship with nature and all its inhabitants. We must politically realize the dharma of wholeness, interconnectedness, compassion, respect and harmony as our guide and reject those who wish to perpetuate the destructive karma of separateness, hierarchies, exploitation, conflict and abuse. We are one people, one planet, with one future. This is the dharma of politics. It is the Way – it is the only way.