Friday, 1 May 2015

A Socialist in the Running? A Progressive Buddhist Politics for 2016

Or: Is there a coherent political agenda in Progressive Buddhism?

Like many first learning about Buddhism, I assumed it was a natural fit for my free-thinking, socially liberal ways and quickly found evidence to support that presupposition. Now that I've studied it for 15 years and teach it along with Comparative World Religions courses to college students, I know that presuppositions and confirmation bias are nasty little things to be rooted out, not reinforced. But I also know that they don't go down without a fight.

In a wonderful 2008 article "Voting Buddhist?", Buddhism scholar Jeff Wilson writes that "Among many converts to Buddhism, at least those willing to speak publicly on the matter, there's a near unanimity that Buddhists must vote for Barack Obama because he is the only candidate whose views and policies align with good Dharma."

That was less than two months before the 2008 general election, which Obama, of course, won. With just over 15 months to go (aye yay yay!), the race for our 2016 presidential election is only in its infancy. Yet we do have two clear candidates on the Democrat side: Hillary Clinton (as of January, 1993) and Bernie Sanders (as of yesterday). For now, I'll just set the Republican candidates aside.

The Dalai Lama has famously claimed to be a Marxist, and yet he also drew criticism for cozying up to the right wing American Enterprise Institute last year (to his defense, he made it clear that he is a socialist/leftist).

Know who else is a socialist?

However, Wilson continues:
But there's a danger in assuming that Buddhism and left-wing politics inherently go together, and that Buddhists ought to vote for liberals because they're Buddhist. Historically speaking, Buddhism has tended to support conservative status quo regimes in Asia, going all the way back to India. In the contemporary world, virtually all of the democratic countries with a significant Buddhist population are currently ruled by right-wing political groups.
That puts a bit of a thorn in our visions of Buddhism as somehow deeply aligned with the compassionate social campaigns of contemporary leftist politics. However, it doesn't preclude Progressive Buddhists today from creating a platform or agenda drawing from Buddhist ideals: compassion must be manifest and wisdom cultivated.

But again I run the risk of simply importing my prejudices into what this would look like: things like universal healthcare including care facilities for those stricken with mental illness, debilitating drug addictions, and old age; as well as universal access to free higher education.

So I want only to start such a conversation here, asking you all to add thoughts in comments or (if you're a contributor) offering new posts in the future. We also have the very pragmatic question ahead of us in terms of perhaps throwing support toward Hillary Clinton, someone far less 'progressive' but who can nonetheless rally the sleepy/silent middle-of-the-spectrum voters who already know her well enough to vote for her. Many I know are certainly in the camp that might go that route when the push comes to shove, thinking of the horrors that another republican (all those in the race so far at least) would bring to the American political landscape.

The Buddha, to my knowledge, never gave an "it could be worse" line of reasoning for supporting a non-virtuous ruler. But he did, with kindness and restraint, preach to Ajātasattu, by all means a horrible ruler and human being. He also famously changed his rules for monks at times, usually when they found idiotic loopholes in his existing rules, and by and large seemed flexible on the social/political front (this perhaps contributing to why later Buddhists were able to accommodate and at times support autocratic and staunchly conservative regimes in Asia and why we may have as many different approaches to American politics here today as we have readers and writers!).

But for now, reading articles like this on Vox, comparing the campaign contributions for Clinton and Sanders (18 out of the top 20 for Clinton are corporations, while 19 out of 20 for Sanders are unions), may lead the more 'progressive' edge of the American Buddhist world support Bernie. 


  1. It is refreshing to hear someone acknowledge that Buddhism may not be "deeply aligned" with left-wing politics and that they've brought their "presuppositions and confirmation" bias to bear early in their Buddhist engagement. Many, many convert Buddhists never gain this insight.

    1. I'm liberal, but in a way that acknowledges no confederation with the likes of Bernie Sanders. Capitalism needs to remain the prime engine of our economy since with it there is a broad palette for each of us to determine our own future. We need to keep an eye on corporations and other businesses -- fetter them with sensible, necessary restrictions -- but otherwise just stand back and let life happen.

    2. Whoops. I should add that I accept some socialism -- for example, I prefer freeways to turnpikes. As well, I think that government should subsidize education and healthcare -- but not entirely. People need to be motivated to participate in making themselves healthy and smart. They need to have some skin in the game by paying a part of the cost of their healthcare and education.