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The Political Buddha

by Bodhipaksa (@Bodhipaksa)
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Ask Buddhists about changing the world, and many will say that the most important thing is to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” They see their practice as a personal affair. And while it’s true that if our practice makes us mindful and kinder we’ll have a positive influence on others, is that really going to change the world in a significant way? My practice might make me more likely to give money to a homeless person, for example, but all that does is to put a small and temporary bandaid on the problem of homelessness, and isn’t going to make the conditions that eradicate homelessness—affordable housing, well-paying jobs, or a social safety net—appear out of thin air.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” raises the question, What change do we want to see in the world anyway? That determines what kind of change we want to be. If we want to do things like combat climate change and mitigate its effects on the most vulnerable ecosystems and communities, protect consumers against predatory lenders, reduce systemic racial discrimination, stand up for democracy and against autocracy, or, indeed, end homelessness, then “being the change” means much more than being kinder and more mindful. It means on the one hand being more politically active and on the other finding a much deeper wellspring of compassion within ourselves. It means breaking out of our spiritual narcissism and being more responsive to the cries of the world.

Much of the Dharma teaching we’re exposed to principally concerns our interior world—being mindful of our bodies, feelings, and thoughts and volitions—and our interpersonal relationships. Largely it ignores wider political and social questions. This can lead us to assume that Buddhism doesn’t and perhaps shouldn’t have such concerns. It can lead us to think that “non-attachment” and “equanimity” should prevent us from getting involved in political and social matters. I think that would be a fundamental misreading of those principles. I think it represents a failure of compassion perhaps fueled by an unhealthy aversion to the discomfort that comes from seeing what a mess our world is in.

Anyway, is it true that Buddhist teachings are unconcerned with political and systemic issues? I don’t think so. To be sure, th

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