Dear reader, You may have noticed that it has been a long while since I have published a post or podcast. The reasons are practical: for one, my podcast partner David had a new baby a few months ago. Congratulations to David! But the bigger slacker has been me. I have taken on new responsibilities at work and family, so I just have less time to podcast. I make time to study, read, and of course practice Dhamma, but there isn’t much left over for podcasting. When this wave crests, I hope to make more time for this blog and podcast. In the meantime, I recommend Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful new translation of the Sutta Nipata. And I eagerly await Ajahn Sujato’s online translation of the near-complete early suttas early next year.
Donald Trump has just become the 45th president of the United States. I assume that this isn’t the first place you’ve heard that news. This is not a political blog, and you won’t find any word on who I supported in the last election. Here is part of the reason why. Likewise, the Buddha did not spend a lot of time talking about politics or encouraging his followers (at least monks and nuns) to be politically active.
“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles … he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue. — DN 2
The Buddha taught that the morality and virtue of a nation is dramatically influenced by the moral character of the leader. Even Trump’s strongest supporters have expressed serious reservations about his moral character. He would be far from the first president to fall short of the highest virtue while in office. FDR and Nixon were functional alcoholics while in office. Kennedy and Clinton lacked virtue in the sexual realm. Essentially every president since Washington launched wars and other military adventures that had little or nothing to do with defending the nation from attack.
While the best predictor of future behavior remains past behavior, Buddhism is full of stories of human transformation. The absolute foundational understanding of Buddhist philosophy is that people can fundamentally change. This is both the cause of suffering and the wellspring of hope.
I have no knowledge of whether the new president is interested in the dhamma, much less blogs about the dhamma, but in any case, here is the Buddha’s advice for Donald Trump…
One way in which President Trump clearly follows the dhamma is by abstaining from alcohol. YOu can read about the Buddha’s views on drinking here. It is one of the cornerstone basic teaching for lay life. President Trump may be called on at a moment’s notice to make decisions that will affect every living person in the world. A sober mind is what is required. Some past presidents have dramatically abused alcohol, most frighteningly Richard Nixon. For example, Josiah M. Hesse writes, “On Oct. 20, 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal, when the House began impeachment proceedings against the president, a standoff in the Middle East between Egypt and Israel grew dire when Soviet forces began shipping missiles into the region. At a time when the nation, and much of the world, were looking to the president for leadership, Nixon was passed out drunk in the family quarters of the White House. His staff continued working to dissolve the crisis, while trying to keep the Russians from finding out that the U.S. was temporarily without a president.”
Donald Trump is overweight and out of shape. This is in sharp contrast to both Bushes and Obama who were all remarkably fit and active. It’s also in sharp contrast to the Buddha. Read about the Buddha’s physique here. On many occasions the Buddha praise striving to be lean and healthy. He gave many different pieces of weight loss advice. For example, here he talks about eating mindfully. Here he talks about minimizing suffering with what we choose to eat. And here he talks about the benefits of eating rice porridge. But the Buddha’s signature piece of weight loss advice, a practice followed by, among others, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is to only eat once a day. You can read about the Buddha’s weight loss advice here.
Trump has vowed to make investment in infrastructure his signature economic policy in his first year. The Buddha generally spoke positively about economic stimulus (see here and here), but generally in times of economic distress. While some people are clearly still economically in a bad way, economy has generally come around from the great recession over the last eight years. It is not clear that stimulus at this time will have a big effect, or at least not as big of an effect as it would have in the teeth of the crisis.
“Speaking only about what leads to liberation — about the things that lead to disenchantment, letting go, peace, wisdom, awakening, and freedom. For example, he should talk about wanting little, being satisfied with little, seclusion, energetic striving, virtue, meditation, wisdom, freedom, and liberation.” -Meghiya Sutta, Udana 4.1
“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” — SN 45.8
It is in the area of speech that Pres. Trump most deviates from the Buddha’s teachings. Even his most ardent supporters admit that he does not scrupulously stick to the truth, avoid abusive speech, remain silent at the right time, and speak only of peace, wisdom, and awakening. People frequently are given jobs and then rise to the occasion. More than one new parents has found themselves changing their life in the face of new responsabilities.
“All beings fear violence, all fear death. Using oneself as a criterion, one should not kill or cause death” (Dhammapada v. 129). The first precept is difficult if not impossible for a president to keep. How can a one lead the military without killing or causing death?
Bikkhu Bodhi ponders this question like this: “But while the ethic of harmlessness may have served well as a guide to personal conduct, the governance of a state presented a moral quandary, with which the texts occasionally grapple. In a short sutta (SN 4:20) the Buddha ponders the intriguing question: Is it possible to rule a country righteously—without killing and instigating others to kill, without confiscating the property of others, without causing sorrow? No sooner does the question occur to him than Mara the Tempter appears and begs the Buddha to give up his monastic vocation in order to rule. The Buddha spurns Mara’s proposal with a statement on the misery of sensual pleasures: ‘Even a mountain of gold would not be enough for one.’ Yet, strangely, the sutta does not answer the question with which it began.”
Qualities of a Leader
The Buddha taught that a great leader has 10 qualities: Charity, Morality, Honesty, Gentleness, Self-Control, Non-Anger, Nonviolence, and Uprightness. It would be a tall order for any of us to manage all of these qualities, but I was most disappointed to learn the truth about Donald Trump’s charitable giving. According to the Wall Street Journal, his charitable organization was far from generous, and he donated very little himself. I hope the presidency offers a new opportunity to
“Abandoning misconduct in sensual pleasures, he abstains from misconduct in sensual pleasures; he does not have intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, or with those who are garlanded in token of betrothal.” -MN41.12
“Not to be contented with one’s own wife, and to be seen with harlots and the wives of others — this is a cause of one’s downfall. Being past one’s youth, to take a young wife and to be unable to sleep for jealousy of her — this is a cause of one’s downfall.” -SN1.6
Sadly, we know that Pres. Trump has violated the precept on multiple occasions in the past. Presidents that have been sexualy profligate, such as Clinton, have needlessly brought great suffering to the themselves, the American people, and the women in their lives. I hope this transgressions is well in Trump’s past.
In summary, one can do little better than the Metta Suttas as advice for a president or anyone else.
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
-Sn 1.8 Karaniya Metta Sutta