“Elephant in the Meditation Room?” (no online link available) is an article that appears in the latest issue of Shamble Sun. The author, Christopher Ford, is a senior counsel for national security policy at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, an ordained lay Buddhist chaplain, and a life-long Republican.
Dr. Ford wastes little time in stating his basic premise: “Buddhism doesn’t have to entail political liberalism. I would argue that a thoughtful Buddhist’s engagement with the socio-political world can lead to a quite conservative sensibility.” I’d like to respectfully suggest that the opposite might be closer to the truth. Dr. Ford might agree with me, though, that a more productive discussion would result if we defined our terms more clearly.
For example, in defense of his argument Dr. Ford points out that “Buddhist ideas of right conduct are consistent with some of the traditional social mores of Western culture.” That’s certainly true, as far as it goes, but the implication that liberalism and traditional social mores are somehow incompatible is misleading. I understand Dr. Ford’s desire to embrace traditional values but I quarrel with his attempt to appropriate those values for the conservative cause. They are universal values that transcend political ideology. They’re as foundational for certain brands of liberalism as they are for certain brands of conservatism.
A lynchpin of Dr. Ford’s position is “Not Knowing,” one of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order. This tenet calls on Zen Peacemakers to “give up fixed ideas” about themselves and the universe. But surely giving up fixed ideas is not the same as being unwilling to make value judgments about what we see going on around us at any given moment. The Dalai Lama provided a more practical model for “Not Knowing” when he was asked about the prospect of science contradicting Buddhist doctrine and replied, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”
The concept of Engaged Buddhism, it seems to me, is predicated on the idea of embracing a responsibility we all have to help each other. In fact, among the convert Buddhists that Dr. Ford describes in his article, there’s a likely explanation for why they tend to be — in his words— “overwhelmingly liberal.” I’ll suggest it might be because “Not Knowing” is not — in their minds — the salient characteristic of Buddhism. The salient characteristic of Buddhism in my mind (and, I suspect, in the minds of many other American convert Buddhists) is compassion.
And it is on the issue of compassion that I believe Buddhism and American political conservatism begin to diverge dramatically. It’s not that conservatives aren’t personally compassionate. They often are. It’s that they favor policy prescriptions that don’t take compassion into account. (Of course, many conservatives sincerely believe that their policies produce better outcomes all up and down the economic spectrum but in the spirit of “Not Knowing,” surely there’s a point at which a generation’s worth of data makes that theory no longer tenable.) For many of us, the effect of Buddhism is to heighten our awareness of the need to infuse our public policy choices with empathy and compassion.
My biggest disconnect with the article is on a point that, perhaps, isn’t one that Dr. Ford himself meant to make. Though the article’s title refers obliquely to Republicans, Dr. Ford never brings partisanship, per se, into the conversation. He refers to Buddhism’s compatibility with “conservative” principles, not “Republican” principles. I might disagree with that conclusion but it’s a reasonable position (and one which Dr. Ford isn’t the first to take).
On the other hand, if the question switches to one about today’s Republican party as an institution, I’d argue that there is little basis for any kind of ongoing affinity between it and American Buddhism. Name whatever issue you’d like and the Republican Party likely supports policies that are at odds with Buddhist principles. For example, to his credit Dr. Ford admits that “progress is affected by people’s external circumstances” so that “there is some role for government in preventing these conditions from becoming catastrophically bad.” That fundamental observation would be controversial in today’s Republican Party. (I wish I were exaggerating.)
The Buddhist aversion to waging war is also an important area of fundamental incompatibility. So is climate change. So is factory farming. The list is a long one.
The impression given by this article to the contrary (and, again, underscoring that the text of the article itself did not mention political parties), I cannot imagine Buddhist practice resulting in the embrace of any of the ideas that characterize the Republican Party in 2015.
There is one point on which I suspect Dr. Ford and I probably agree. I believe we’d both be pleased to see all of our policymakers become more acquainted with Buddhist principles and practices. Of course, he and I have different ideas about what a more widespread embrace of the dharma might look like in the political arena over time. But I, for one, would like to see dharma practice proliferate as widely as possible — and I’d be willing to take my chances with the political outcome.