Friday May 5, 2006
Yesterday I cast my vote in the local council elections. I went down to the library, took a slip of paper, placed my cross in what seemed to me to be the most appropriate of the three boxes, posted it into the plastic bucket and went home. As I wandered back through the spring sunshine, I found myself thinking about the action I had just performed. What does it mean to cast a vote? What is this democracy about which we are so concerned? What is the mystique that surrounds democracy, and what are the harms that come from this mystique? What is politics anyway?
I’ve been meaning to write about politics for some time here on thinkBuddha. I don’t think of thinkBuddha as an overtly “political” blog, but nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more I see that questions of politics rumble away in the background of many of the things that I write. Sometimes it is more explicit – as in my recent post on Žižek – whilst at other times at is more implicit than explicit – for example in my post on Martial thoughts. Nevertheless it is often, perhaps always, there.
In some Buddhist circles, “politics” is a dirty word, as if politics was a byword for coercion, control and oppression. Many who are happy to say that ethics is an integral part of the Buddhist path would shrink from saying that politics should have any part to play in a life of Buddhist practice.
Part of the problem is one of definition. Whilst “ethics” popularly means something like “how I can be good to others”, “politics” is popularly taken to mean “how I can oppress others.” But attaching these values to the two terms is not necessarily helpful. Ethics is about ethos: how I comport myself, how I behave as an individual. Politics is about the polis or the collectivity: how it comports itself, how it behaves corporately. And we are rooted both in ethics and in politics. Sometimes we find ourselves caught between the two.
So it is not that we should be political, but rather that we are political, whether we like it or not. Aristotle’s definition is quoted so often – Anthropos phusei politikon zoon: man is an animal of the polis – that it is possible to forget its significance. We are social animals. Like ants and baboons. It is a part of our nature to be tangled up with others. We naturally form associations with others, we gather into groups. So even when we are most alone, we are tangled up with others. Any tendency to dismiss politics and to focus only on ethics, is to succumb to a kind of mistaken individualism and to miss what might be called our in-built sociality. We cannot evade politics any more than we can evade ethics.
When the future Buddha went forth from his home to the homeless life, sometimes this departure is talked about as his “leaving society” (and thus, politics); but it was no such thing. Firstly, he joined a well-established society of wanderers, philosophers and practitioners; and secondly this society itself was entangled with the settled society of householders. You cannot leave society. You can only change your relationship to it. Even on a desert island you are in society with others. To claim to be apolitical, or to be uninterested in politics, is thus a political stance.
The Buddhist tradition talks about the “three jewels”, or the three precious things, that must be guarded for us to be able to practice. The first is the buddha – the principle of awakening. The second is the dharma – very loosely speaking ( dharma is one of those tricky and almost entirely untranslatable words) the teachings and methods that enable us to awaken to our true situation. But the third is the sangha – the community in which this process takes place. Aristotle says that every polis is “an association of persons formed with a view to some good purpose.” This would serve as a good working definition of the Buddhist idea of sangha as well. The question we find ourselves asking is not just how we are to act as individuals, but how we are to act collectively or in relation to collectivities. It seems to me that, taking a view of politics from Aristotle, Buddhism recognises the centrality of politics in our lives.
A Buddhist friend once said to me that he had often wished that the Buddha had only come up with the first two “jewels”, that life would be so much easier without the third one: other people. But then he added that the Buddha knew what he was doing. Awakening, to take on any true meaning, must take place in community with others. I might risk going against certain aspects of the Buddhist tradition in which the pratyekabuddha or “solitary Buddha” is recognised, to say that I cannot see how it is possible for there to be such a thing as a purely solitary awakening. Or, to put it another way, I cannot see how there can be an awakening that is not at the same time both ethical and political. Giving such centrality to the idea of sangha may be attesting to this fact. As I see it, the centrality of sangha puts politics at the heart of Buddhism.
In his book The Compassionate Revolution: Buddhism and Radical Politics, David Edwards writes
if we are serious about the relief of suffering, we need to combat greed, hatred and ignorance as manifested in ourselves as individuals but also as manifested in […] institutions. The two tasks are inseperable.
But to return to yesterday’s vote. I wonder if the problem of this limited view of politics is not restricted to the Buddhist world. For if we identify political action merely with the casting of the occasional vote, or with the comings and goings of party politics, we forget that we are continually called upon to act and respond politically, that the day-to-day decisions of our lives are both ethical and political; in so doing, we blind ourselves to the political realities at the heart of our lives.
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