September 6, 2004
(Swans - September 6, 2004) For over 30 years I have been what is usually called an activist,
involved in campaigns and causes against things, like war or apartheid,
and for things, such as ecological preservation, minority rights, etc.
Since even before that time, I have also been a Buddhist, journeying
first from Zen to Tibetan Vajrayana and now finding my spiritual home as
a priest of Jodo-Shinshu or Shin Buddhism. Ten years ago, at 35, I
entered an MA program in Engaged Buddhism because I thought I might
learn some new strategies as well as contribute to the emerging field of
"engaged Buddhist" studies. I wanted to explore ways to combine these
two passions in ways that respected the traditions of both while being
true to my own views. It seemed that I'd been "engaged" as a Buddhist
long before I'd ever heard of the term and had always been a Buddhist
who operated as an activist. Now, many after years of struggling over
ways to unite these two seemingly disparate strands of my personal life,
I have come to a definitive conclusion about the role of politics and
the American Buddhist community. That is, perhaps no religion is so
totally compatible with a political movement as Buddhism is with the
The Green Party's Ten Key Values and its abbreviated Four Pillars** represent the most total and compatible political platform likely to be acceptable to the majority of Buddhists around the world. While other political movements and parties have compatible sections, values and basic propositions, the Greens, particularly because of their incorporation of non-violence and more holistic earth orientation, make it a most consonant fit for Buddhists.
During the early seventies, when I first became active in political change, there remained in the air an atmosphere of positive possibilities, a residue of sixties' idealism perhaps and an indication of the seventies' expansion of arenas for work. From gay rights to feminism, from an emerging Latino sense of empowerment to the solidarity movements with Latin American struggles for democracy, there remained a recognition that masses of people could assemble together to affect great change on the American social, political and economic landscape.
But now, things seem very different for there is a huge political crisis in American democracy.
There is a crisis of disinterest: in the past three presidential elections, our presidents have been elected with barely or less than 50% of the popular vote, and that in elections where only about half of eligible voters voted at all.
There is a crisis of possibilities: there are now fewer opportunities for valuable discourse in an entrenched political system that co-opts change and change agents and barricades itself against even mildly alternative viewpoints. (Just witness the recent hunger around even tepid Democratic reformers like Howard Dean or the sincere but marginalized Dennis Kucinich and then their rapid dismissals by their own party.)
There is a crisis of communication: the polarized electorate is regularly fed pabulum in the mainstream press and in growing numbers Americans are pulling away from the electoral possibilities of ever changing their society in any fundamental way for the common good. Instead, Americans are retreating into ideologically isolated enclaves, more bitter and suspicious of each other than ever before.
There is a crisis of information: Americans who receive their news from the main sources of such, CNN, Fox, etc., are regularly polled as actually having less factual information than those who opt out entirely of the mainstream media and receive their news and information from only "alternative media" sources. This latter group, however, remains small, relatively uninfluential and by and large, unseen.
Taken together, all this is a dangerous set of trends for our democracy.
An Earth-Touching Movement
Against this current are many heroic individuals, working in many different arenas, in media, in alternative political parties and in movements within their communities. In various ways Americans are resisting war, fighting to make our communities healthier, creating new arrangements for commerce and challenging an increasingly moribund status quo. But history has shown us that unless a critical mass is achieved, a powerful unleashing of pent up forces that demand attention to a new way of viewing and living in our world, little will change. But then when this does happen, our society changes, usually for the better.
It is probably true that no fundamental change movement has captured the American collective imagination in the same way as the Civil Rights struggle did. Perhaps none ever will nor can. And yet in terms of broadness of vision, no one but the Greens take into account that a completely new perspective is needed, one that begins with the our collective home, the earth. Greens around the world incorporate a near universal recognition that our very existence is threatened by the foolhardy activities we engage in to preserve our particular and wasteful Western ways of life. It is also generally understood that only a dramatic reconsideration of what constitutes a healthy society, including our economic and political structure, can save us. All of us.
Many if not most Americans recognize clearly that outdated factories and outmoded autos cause massive amounts of deadly pollution, that oil is a limited commodity whose addiction causes wars, that our waterways and communities are often polluted with agents that cause disease, birth defects in and even death of our children. Americans know that our corporate farming techniques are destroying our water tables, that our over-consumption is killing us and that the odds of this collection of trends being sustainable for long is slim to none. At a certain level Americans know all of this. Yet the leadership of both our major political parties is so captured by those who continue down this path, the money interests that engage in the most egregious pollution or the most egregious violations of democratic principles that, rather than challenge them, Americans are giving up, running away from voting in droves and fatalistically assuming that this is the way things will always be.
Only the Greens have the optimism of spirit and boldness of vision to advance a program that embraces ecology, social justice, peace and electoral reform as its very base. It does it in democratic ways, accepting no money from corporate interests and remaining accountable to each local or state party. It does this in realistic ways, by working state by state rather than on some national scale to develop in decentralized ways a relationship to people in their communities and on a scale most responsive to individual action. But perhaps most importantly, it also does this in ways that affirm the very sanctity of the earth we all live in, exhorting us to touch with ecological sensitivity our planet and to wisely use its resources that are our very life blood.
It is here, in the Greens' earth-touching orientation that the world was first exposed to, and now captivated by, the then-radical notions about global warming, environmental degradation and the need for more renewable resources for our people's increasing energy demands. Greens saw the connections between our earth's growing problems, our people's growing needs and the bankruptcy of the old solutions. They recognized that the political spectrum seemed locked in old and worn-out methods of addressing these issues and they worked to expand that perspective beyond traditional left-right political categories.
Greens understand that political change is only possible when the system is open enough to regularly allow change agents into the electoral system. By advocating Proportional Representation (PR) and Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Greens support the expansion of our democratic process in ways neither major party wants and both fear. It challenges the unbridled and corrupt growth of corporate capitalism that sucks the lives out of our communities and blindly plunges us onward, to the profit of the few and to the growing misery of the rest.
Only the Greens reject the violence of the death penalty and imperial wars whose thin justifications make us the dangerous laughingstock of good peoples around the world. Only the Greens believe sustainability comes when all our people are fed, when all of them receive a living wage, when all of them receive health care and when all of them are given free and universal access to education at all levels. Only Greens realistically accept what former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned, referring to the "military-industrial complex" and its unhealthy influence on all aspects of American life. This prescient speech stated, in part:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes...Only Greens place the need for peace and security into balance with the need for social justice and the (re)investment of public monies back into the social infrastructure of our country. To cautiously regard and keep in check the rise of our military might (now over a billion dollars per day) and its grave costs to our moral and economic might is not a "liberal" or "conservative" value, it is an American value. Only the Greens recognize that such wasteful spending guarantees that many of our schools go without windows or textbooks, our cities without mass transit, our poor without health care or our society without a binding influence other than fear of constantly arising, and by and large phantom, enemies.
There can be no more important public task before Buddhists than to live out our lives striving for a more equitable, non-violent and harmonious society, one where all creatures and all of "creation" are respected. That being the case, and the Green Party as the only political group consistently working towards all of those goals, then how can we afford to go elsewhere?
An Earth-Touching Faith
It should come as no surprise that, having arisen in northern India, Buddhism should find expression in that country's lush forests. What is surprising, however, is just how deeply intertwined the Buddha's life and teachings are connected with the earth.
His life began in the forest when he was magically born from the side of his mother under a sala tree. Some of the first stories we hear of him as a child refer to his deep compassion for animals, his resonance with the peace and solitude of meditation under trees and his instinctive revulsion at a life of excess. Rejecting the luxury he was born into, he spent six years of his life wandering the forests as a mendicant, in a search for a truth that would end the suffering of all beings, not only humans. In the end, just after he at last attained his Enlightenment, he was challenged by Mara, a tempter figure, to justify this brazen attempt at comprehending the depths of suffering. As Rev. Don Castro writes in his website, Eco-Sangha,
"Why should you be called a Buddha (Enlightened One)," asked Mara. "Since you dwelt alone in the forest, no one has witnessed your practice and accumulation of merit." The Buddha simply touched the earth to call upon the goddess of the earth, Sthavara, who emerged and confirmed the Buddha's enlightenment. Indeed, this great earth, through its health or sickness, will bear witness as to how foolish or enlightened we human beings are. In all Buddhist countries, there is a beautiful and perfectly apt image of Shakyamuni Buddha in the "earth-touching posture." What a wonderful and convenient symbol of Buddhism's inherent ecological perspective."For the 40 years he wandered and taught, the Buddha met with all kinds of people, the rich and poor, warriors and farmers, rulers and ruled and he brought to each encounter a deep respect for the inherent worth of each individual and an unshakeable faith in the ability of each to fully awaken. But he set conditions for that awakening, practices for an exemplary moral/ethical life for the individual and in a collective sense, policies and programs about how a just society was necessary for the full development of all people. He mediated between conflicting nations, advocating for peaceful, nonviolent solutions and admonished all sides to be aware of the underlying causes of conflicts. These not only included anger, greed and cupidity (the "three poisons") but also social inequalities, poverty, injustice and a misuse of resources.
In many of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, we see the progressive Buddhist views of economics and ideas about what constitutes a just society. As Joanna Macy writes:
These scriptures express the economic interdependence that exists between the state and its citizenry, and to the extent to which its health and security is a function of the well-being of all its people. When the king, in the Kutadanta Sutta [quoted at the top of this article] desires to offer a great royal ritual sacrifice to ensure his future welfare, he is reminded of the crime that harries his realm, pillaging towns and making the roads unsafe. His court chaplain, who is identified as the Buddha himself in a former life, argues that neither fresh taxation nor arrest and punishment of the miscreants will end the disorder. The one way to stop it is to create productive employment opportunities: to give food and seed-corn to the farmers, capital to those who would engage in trade, and food and wages to those who would enter government service.These are said to include,
"food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked, means of conveyance for those who needed it, couches for the tired, wives for those who wanted wives, gold for the poor, and money for those who were in want. (Macy, pages 102-103)A story from the Atthakatha, commentaries on Buddhist teachings from the earliest period of Buddhism's history depicts what one Buddhist priest describes as a "model recycling program":
When Syamavati, the queen-consort of King Udyana, offered Ananda five hundred garments, Ananda received them with great satisfaction. The King, hearing of it, suspected Ananda of dishonesty, so he came to Ananda and asked what he was going to do with the garments. Ananda replied:In the third century B.C.E., perhaps the greatest example of Buddhist-inspired social, political and economic policies occurred under the reign of King Ashoka of India. Ashoka recorded, in a series of edicts carved on pillars of stone and set throughout the country, the far reaching and for the time quite progressive reform measures he undertook. Professor Robert Thurman has categorized these Edicts as being of five types:
1) transcendentalism [an acknowledgement of the Buddhist Dharma, or teachings including that of the interdependence of all things],Later, a rich set of imagery was created to describe the underlying unity, which connected all things. (This notion is derived from the fundamental Buddhist concept of paticca samuppada, Dependent Co-Origination, or Conditioned Genesis, which asserts the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena and their conditioned arising from causes and conditions.) The jeweled net of Indra is perhaps the loveliest of these images, describing the Cosmos as a vast net of Indra, the king of the gods, stretching everywhere and embracing all things in space and time. And in the "knots" of this net are jewels that contain reflected within them the image of all the other jewels of the universe. Thus all things are not only inextricably connected to one another but in each single thing is contained the reflection and essence of all other things. It is little wonder then that such imagery found its way into the "deep ecology" thinkers like Arne Naess and Joanna Macy as perhaps the best expression of the beautiful but fragile connectedness that is fundamental to our existence.
(That said, I would caution against a too-close identification of Buddhist principles with the "deep ecology" movement since some of its most prominent spokespersons have advocated positions that would most certainly be characterized as misanthropic, and cruel.)
Green notions of "sustainability" are often recognized as influenced by Buddhist principles and are, regardless, compatible with Buddhist ideals. These ideas are further given voice through the writings of the late Bhikkhu Buddhadasa (who coined the phrase Dhammic Socialism) and through his influence, Siamese activist Sulak Sivaraksa. There are many other Buddhists actively involved in social change movements and all have spoken eloquently about the preservation and care of the earth as a major part of their ultimate goals. People such as the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrate that this vision is shared by Buddhists of all major divisions and there is now an Eco Sangha group, led by the Rev. Don Castro, a Shin Buddhist priest in Seattle, with its own website and publication in the United States. An excerpt from their website provides a good description of their perspective:
When we really understand our relation to the whole universe, it makes us very humble. We realize that all our good fortune is due to the efforts of countless others. When we realize this, our gratitude extends to everything in the universe. It causes us to realize our interdependence on every thing in the universe. No Buddhist believes that other forms of life were put here to nourish and sustain us. Unfortunately, we must deliberately and consciously kill other forms of life for our own self-preservation. [Thus] to live is to live interdependently and to live interdependently is to live at the expense of other forms of life.So we see that from Buddhism's earliest times and to the present, embracing a wide range of sects and divisions, Buddhists have been fairly consistently united around principles of non-violence, social welfare, sustainability, and a compassionate regard for the interconnectedness of all life.
Much has been made of the Buddha's remarkable Wisdom and his teachings about seeing all positions as spiritually inadequate. This has often been unfairly translated as reflecting a passive do-nothing-ism. But most American Buddhists do have views or positions, whether about abortion, environmentalism or "just wars." As well, we cannot say that Buddhist notions of social and economic justice or equality represent around the world some perfect and universally applicable model. Obviously there remains much to be done in terms of women's rights, for example, in many of the ostensibly Buddhist countries around the world. But the fundamental teachings of the Buddha lend themselves by and large to a set of principles that dovetail extremely well with western notions of progressivism and now, modern ecological sensibilities.
In fact, were we to look for a place where our ideals might fit in with any political movement, Buddhists can probably find no more perfect fit than with the Greens.
· · · · · ·
* I will refer to the broader movement as Greens and the political organ for that movement as the Green Party. (back)
** The Four Pillars of the Green Party are:
1. Ecology (or Ecological Wisdom)
2. Social Justice
3. Grassroots Democracy
4. Non-Violence (back)
1. Eppsteiner, Fred, ed., The Path of Compassion, Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988.
2. Macy, Joanna, World As Lover, World As Self, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
3. Eco Sangha, The Journal of Ecological Buddhism, http://www.seattlebetsuin.com/EcoSangha/Default.htm
The Greens on Swans
José M. Tirado is a writer, poet and Green activist whose articles have appeared in Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, the Gurdjieff Internet Guide, and the Magazine of Green Social Thought, Synthesis/Regeneration. He is also a Shin Buddhist priest teaching in Iceland.
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