I was recently chastised for being too “political” in my postings on Facebook. Well, it seems to me that one function of the saṅghā is to bring the Dhamma to the people. And if doing so fits in the genre, “political,” so be it. But before we dismiss it so easily, let’s kick some ideas around a bit.
The Dhamma teaches us that the “Human Condition” is characterized by three distinguishing qualities: aniccā, anattā and dukkhā. “Aniccā” is the concept of impermanence and transitoriness. Nothing lasts forever, and while things exist they are undergoing constant change. “Anattā” asserts the negation of the Brahminic doctrine of “Atta” (Ātman). And “dukkhā” is the central problem addressed by the Dhamma. “Dukkhā” is that state of being in which we find ourselves when our desires and perceptions are not congruent with Reality. Sort of an academic definition, but what it means is that when we don’t get stuff we want (or get stuff we don’t want), and when our thinking about how Reality is or should be turns out to be inaccurate, we get upset. The more committed we are to thinking/feeling that we should (always) get what we want, or that Reality should be exactly the way we want it to be, the greater our distress. That distress is manifest in a whole range of behaviors – thoughts, words and deeds.
So, how is it we get into this state of dukkhā? To explain that takes us to a couple of defining characteristics of Human Nature – that is what it means to be human.
When humans are born, we are totally lacking in knowledge, wisdom, and insightful understanding. And when we’re born, we are totally consumed with self-gratification. The Pāḷi word for this first trait is “avijjā,” (ignorance, delusion) and the Pāḷi word for the second is “taņhā,” literally, “thirst,” but desire, clinging, greed, attachment and many other words have been used to translate the concept. The mechanism works something like this: the less grasp we have of Reality as it is, as opposed to how we want it to be, or think it should be, coupled with a greater or lesser desire for Reality to conform to how we want it to be, or think it should be, results in an emotional reaction. When we let our thoughts, words and deeds be controlled by those emotional reactions, we experience dukkhā. And we create all sorts of difficulties for ourselves and for others.
“All very well and good!” you say, “But what has this to do with you being political on Facebook?” Ah, thank you for asking.
“Politics” points to the many concepts, doctrines, practices, activities, etc., associated with how people live in groups. How we set about to make a particular community, or society, or polity work. In some sense, “politics” is all about the distribution of power within a group. Who gets to make the important decisions, and who gets to enforce the rules, and who’s will gets imposed on the rest of the group. There are many forms of political organization: secular, religious, autocratic, despotic, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, etc. In the U.S. we are set up as a secular, pluralistic, representative democracy. Being secular means we don’t impose any particular set of religious beliefs on how that power is distributed. Pluralism recognizes the existence of any number of diverse and competing interests and calls for us to be considerate of the interests of others. Representative democracy points out that we, the people, are the final authority on the distribution of power, and that we pick folks who share our values, views, and ideals. to make the rules and make the decisions about how power is to be distributed. Being a “good” citizen of such a form of government requires that we a) be informed [look at other postings on Right Knowledge], and b) we participate. We make our voices heard.
So, to tie this all together (or to attempt to), as a member of the saṅghā (one who lives and teaches the Dhamma), living in a secular, pluralistic, representative democracy, it is my responsibility (duty perhaps) to point up instances of avijjā and taņhā when they occur in the process of governing, and to make an effort to enlighten and alleviate these conditions. When political leadership displays ignorance, and the propensity for self-gratification over lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), and joy in others well-being (muditā), we are obligated to speak up, and to act.
So, label it political if you want. Chastise me if you want. I’m just trying to be a good Buddhist. A good teacher. A good bhikkhu. A good Buddhist monk.