The theme at our dhamma center for the last few months has been engaged Buddhism. We’ve had a string of well-intentioned teachers coming in to talk about Thich Nhat Hanh, climate change, Eric Garner, and the like. The appeal of engaged Buddhism for most Buddhists is obvious: climate change, racism, economic inequality and the like are clear injustices, and it would be wonderful if Buddhism could address these things directly. And on top of it, Buddhist luminaries like Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Jack Kornfield are clearly out in front on these issues.
The drawback is less obvious, particularly to people whose circle of friends is limited: all of these issues are lefty political issues. Convert Western Buddhists are overwhelmingly politically left. Or at least leftish. It is not unusual, of course, for sects or churches to skew politically. Indeed, most churches I’ve ever been to have an overwhelming political affiliation that is identifiable the second you walk in the door. Whether it’s the Unitarian Church with the lesbian pastor or the Baptist Church with the “IF GOD CREATED MAN AS APES – WE WOULD LOOK LIKE APES” sign our front (here), religion and politics are never that far apart.
This is sometimes a wonderful thing. Both the US Civil Rights movement and the Indian anti-colonial movement were primarily religious movements. But opposite is at least as often the case. The Crusades were, after all, religious crusades. Even within Buddhism, some of the most activist, politically engaged Buddhists are anti-Muslim activists in Burma. Not a pretty sight.
In any case, the inevitable happened in our little sangha. After a fiery dhamma talk decrying social injustice and opining for Engaged Buddhism: someone from the political right spoke up. She spoke in favor of policing and against the protesters. Most of my family are from the right, so I’m used to hearing these opinions voiced openly by people that I love and admire. But most of the sangha was left a little thunderstruck. There was an almost audible thought, “Who let her in here?” This is the drawback, the danger of engaged Buddhism. Saying that Buddhism should be engaged is very close, perhaps inevitably the same as saying, Buddhism should be political.
It was very dispiriting, and it was a prime example of what I’ve believed for a long time: we need engaged Buddhists, not engaged Buddhism.
Buddhism is about caring for the person in front of you. But Buddhism should not be political. This is not to say that Buddhists shouldn’t be political. For the most part it is impossible to actually entirely avoid politics. Getting up in the morning, going to work, and paying taxes are all political acts. Going to the forest and living as a hermit would be a political act, too. But taking a strong stand on political controversies will inevitable, inevitably, divide the sangha. This is why the Buddha said that talk of kings and generals and wars was not the task of the renunciate.