Politics and Buddhism

The current trend in politics towards insularity and binary opposition is, I feel, a direct result of our cultural lassitude in coming to a relativistic sense of being.

We are still weak in the halls of Newtonian cosmology, largely due to its usefulness and to the attitudes of men and women who have built careers on the back of the field and who have overly identified with it to the point of mild dogmatism. But to limit ourselves to this way of thinking and seeing the world is to ignore the most astounding discoveries of modern physics, namely that the universe is a relative phenomenon, and that on some fundamental level it really is indeterminate.

This, if truly felt on the level of say, feeling in love with a person, or the shock of nearly being hit by a car, would inject us against the kind of mammalian madness on display in the current US presidential campaign by demonstrating that there is no such thing as an objective point in the cosmos which we can use as an absolute standard to measure and account for the experiences of our lives. The kind of thinking that allows for a man like Donald Trump to achieve what he has is fundamentally a dualistic, either/or, yes/no, absolutist mindset, in which we can know the truth objectively and totally, and identify easily and quickly what is wrong or false simply by contrasting it with this “truth”.

We have seen this in the form of Biblical literalism for hundreds of years, and in the extremist Wahhabi sect of Islam, in free market ideology, in the objectivism of Ayn Rand and so on. None of these forms of thinking or behaving have been historically good for humanity, in fact they have more often than not invited the deepest miseries and the most extravagant violence’s.

We can see then, that to avoid or to ignore relativistic thinking is to run the risk of falling into self-reinforcing forms of increasingly dangerous adherence to ideas, which logically culminate if taken to their extreme in murder of the non-believer. Trump expresses this tendency in veiled threats towards minorities, Hilary Clinton in her support of coups in the Honduras, and her attempts at obfuscating the truth around her correspondences with various un-democratic forces around the globe. Clinton has expressed the desire to murder whistle-blower and founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, via drone strike, due to his continued efforts to bring a degree of transparency to government activity worldwide.

So, the question becomes, how do we extricate ourselves, and our culture, from binary absolutist thinking and make the transition to a relative mind?

I believe two forces can be of great aid in this respect, and the first is Buddhism, specifically the original teachings of the Buddha on what he called pratityasamutpada, or “dependent origination”. The basic notion behind this view of the world is that what we call realty is a form of conditional appearance, and that what we consider to be solid “objects”and “things”, and even “events”, are more accurately described as aggregate processes than real metaphysical entities with inherent identities. Furthermore, these processes are mutually arising, to borrow a Taoist phrase, and can only exist in relationship, relative to one another.

This mindset can be experienced through the cultivation of relaxed and attentive states of mind through meditative practice and the careful and alert study of the natural world. Gregory Bateson remarked that if one wants to discover the meaning of nature, one should pay more attention to space and relationship than necessarily to the external forms, boundaries and patterns of the phenomena under observation. As we are an expression of nature, it seems only reasonable then that to discover our own meaning, we should take a similar approach.

So, to conclude, I believe that Buddhism can lift us up and out of the mire of binary politics and into a situation of cohesive and fact-based coexistence with one another, where our decision making skills may finally come to fit the materials to which we must apply them.

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One thought on “Politics and Buddhism

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