Can You Be a Conservative and a Buddhist?

| October 23, 2016 | 15 Comments

From Patheos Sept. 13, 2016 – Buddhist Political Preferences

This question was recently answered in the affirmative by Christopher Ford, who argued in Elephant in the Meditation Room (October 14, 2016) that it’s possible to be both politically conservative and a Buddhist.  More, he thinks it’s crucial that Buddhism in the U.S. has a greater diversity of opinion among its adherents, for “a bigger role for conservatives would enrich American Buddhism greatly….”

While I believe that this view is problematic, it is not because I want to uphold some standard of political correctness and enforce an “ideological monoculture” among Buddhists.  The vitality and richness of Buddhism in the U.S. is based on the fruitful intermingling and dialogue among various traditions, lineages, and new developments such as secular Buddhism.  That’s something we should value and foster.

Rather, my criticism of Ford’s perspective is that, in his attempt to make conservatism relevant to Buddhism, he leaves out all of the actual expressions of modern-day conservatism and instead cherry-picks several aspects of traditional conservative theory which he thinks are more closely aligned with core notions of Buddhism.

Ford on Conservatism and Buddhism

Ford asserts that Mahayana/Zen Buddhism and conservatism share some common features.  In the first place, both conservatism and Mahayana Buddhism understand that human beings often have a deluded or wrong understanding of events and phenomena. Thus, one must cultivate a sense of “Not Knowing” or Beginner’s Mind, approaching life with a sense of humility and openness.

For Ford, this is very much what limited-government conservatives are emphasizing when they criticize political liberals and radicals who support an expanded and more interventionist government.  Liberals and radicals think they have the right answer to all social problems and can create public policies and social institutions which solve these problems. As a political conservative, Ford argues that Big Government is to be avoided and supports, “the conservative idea that people are fallible, that society is not perfectible through public policy, and that the coercive power of government is generally to be distrusted as a tool for social change.”

According to Ford, while there is a need for government to perform some core functions (national defense, law enforcement) to preserve the community and thus allow individuals, if they choose, to advance spiritually, government should be limited and not intrude on people’s personal lives.

The other way in which Ford sees conservatism and Buddhism as aligned is in the ethical values and norms of conduct which both emphasize: self-restraint, probity, honesty, treating others with respect, humility, and generosity.

Interestingly, Ford relates support for a limited government and particular qualities of ethical conduct to the core notions of a Buddhist lineage which is actually known for its socially engaged, liberal-radical approach: the Zen Peacemaker Order.  Perhaps he did this to show how a facile opposition of liberal and conservative perspectives doesn’t make sense.

Actual Conservatism in 21st Century America

It’s certainly true that one element of conservative thought is the view that, due to human fallibility and the limits of rationality, efforts to use the government to solve social problems or, at the extreme, to overthrow an existing system through revolution, inevitably fail. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and Friedrich von Hayek’s critique of socialism and economic planning in The Fatal Conceit (1988) and other writings, are prime examples of the conservative rejection of activist government.

Further, many conservatives have also traditionally embraced an ethics and code of conduct which emphasizes the importance of self-restraint, cultural traditions, and religion to counter, from their perspective, the human tendency toward selfishness and violence.

Ford, however, takes these elements of conservative thought out of the context of the actual phenomenon of modern-day conservatism, and then finds a link with certain notions in Buddhism. The problem with this approach is that modern-day conservatism is not just based on a Burkean suspicion of revolutionary projects or a Hayekian insistence on our inability to develop a rational plan for the economy in the context of the multiplicity of social interactions.

Modern-day conservatism has several strands, but each is integrally linked to institutions, processes, and conduct which I believe are antithetical to Buddhism’s core values and ideas.

One trend within today’s conservatism is full-fledged support for the maintenance and expansion of neo-liberal capitalism in all its ugly incarnations.  Advocates of this trend celebrate a hyper-individualism rooted in the striving for power and profit of a capitalist elite in the context of market competition. It is hard to imagine a way of life more inconsistent with core Buddhist notions of the essential interrelationship of human beings, clinging as the source of suffering, and the ethical primacy of care and compassion.

Similarly, the Christian fundamentalism which is another essential element of modern-day conservatism in the U.S. is antithetical to Buddhism – not just because of its theism, but, more importantly, because of its dogmatism, intolerance of other perspectives, refusal to accept new ideas, and its emphasis on rigid compliance with authority. “Not Knowing” is certainly not highly valued in fundamentalist circles.

Another important group within modern-day conservatism are the national security “hawks” who believe that the United States needs to use its military power not just to protect the country, but to defeat any nation or movement which does not align itself with our country and our values. Advocates of this trend within conservatism support an aggressive, expansionistic foreign policy which divides the world into those who are with us and those who oppose us – the Other.  They have no hesitation to use military power and other forms of violence to secure U.S. interests in the world. Again, it is hard to see how such an approach can be reconciled with the Buddhist notion of non-harming (ahimsa). The Buddha’s admonition in the Dhammapada that “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal“  would surely not be considered words of wisdom by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and other neo-conservatives.

And finally, existing somewhat uneasily within contemporary political conservatism in the U.S. are the Tea Party adherents, most of whom have become Trump supporters in the current election cycle. While alienated from Republican and conservative elites who support neo-liberal capitalism, they share with the fundamentalists and national security hawks the fear and loathing of the Other, both within our country and without. They want to build walls to keep out those who they think threaten our “way of life.” They want to limit the rights of women, people of color, and other groups who do not share their sense of America’s traditional values. Surely, if Buddhism is anything, it’s about recognizing the Other as a fellow suffering human being, not seeing the Other as an enemy separate from us.

The Scope of Political Diversity in U.S. Buddhism

Given these actual manifestation of modern-day conservatism, is it therefore surprising that few Buddhists are politically conservative? The divide between core Buddhist notions and modern-day conservatism is simply too wide.

Ford is correct to emphasize the value of “No Nothing” and certain kinds of conduct as crucial to creating the kind of society which helps human beings to flourish.   However, American political conservatism does not offer a vision for such a society. If anything, contemporary conservative ideas and movements are the biggest obstacles to creating a society based on respect, interconnection, and love.

In short, to answer the question initially posed: you can’t be a modern-day conservative and fully embrace the core notions of Buddhism.

While the core notions and values of Buddhism are not, in my view, consistent with modern-day, political conservatism, this does not mean that Buddhism entails some other political perspective, whether liberal, libertarian, anarchist, or Marxist. Writing about current critiques of the mindfulness movement offered by some radically-inclined Buddhists, Doug Smith’s blog post last May provided a useful corrective to the view that Buddhists must necessarily be anti-capitalist:

As for issues in social and political ethics, while contemporary Buddhists or Buddhist sympathizers should feel free to creatively extend the Buddha’s teaching in ways that are, for example, strongly anti-capitalist, one cannot claim based on the early texts that the Buddha was committed exclusively to such approaches, nor that the Buddha would necessarily have condemned contemporary teachers who do not follow such strict paths.

Thus, Buddhists – whether secular or more traditional in approach – should recognize and respect a variety of ways in which one can genuinely and fully embrace a Buddhist outlook and practice.  But our broad, Buddhist tent stretches just so far; and modern-day political conservatism just doesn’t fit under it.


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I have been a political and labor activist for over 40 years. In 2010, I became interested in Buddhism and began a regular vipassana meditation practice. As an agnostic and activist, I am particularly interested in exploring how to connect secular Buddhism with a radical political theory and practice.

Comments (15)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Nice piece, Michael! The “not knowing” of the Mahayana isn’t befuddlement, but the recognition that when we observe our experience carefully we see that nothing is fixable and permanent. It certainly isn’t consistent with a doctrinaire faith in humanity’s inability to govern itself. The Vinaya governs the actions of monks far more intrusively than any government you can think of governs its citizens, after all. Nor is it consistent with faith in the invisible hand of the market to balance out human economic behavior. But, as you point out, when we examine the intentions of conservatives, we find a valuing of acquisitiveness and insularity that most Buddhists would equate with delusion. On the other hand, we can take a look at the xenophobic monks of Burma and recognize that, in practice, conservatives can call themselves Buddhists if they like.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the comment. I’m glad you added the point that self-identified Buddhists, such as the xenophobic monks in Burma, can have beliefs and behave in ways that are as bad as the most hawkish, racist, and pro-capitalist conservative in the U.S. It’s not the label, but the connection with the basic values, norms of conduct, and essential ideas of the Buddha that we’re both talking about when we refer to Buddhism.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Do conservatives really believe most of us on the left think we know all the answers?

    A very fine, thoughtful and nuanced piece, Michael. It’s really possible to be a contemporary conservative and a Buddhist only if one is deluded about some basic social and political realities. You’ve nicely pointed out the contraction between values conservatives (of the better sort, I suppose) espouse and those realities. Maybe its even impossible to hold those values and be a conservative without being deluded. I’ve never understood how conservatives can see the State as a such threat, while ignoring the corrosive effect of unregulated capitalism. It’s hard not to suspect willful blindness. For most progressives,I think, theoretical questions about the perfectability of society are less important that the practical need to counter corporate excess.

    However, the delusion I’m referring to isn’t the delusion (not quite, anyway) that Gotama talked about. So I wouldn’t kick (literally or figuratively) any conservatives out of the Sanga if they can sincerely embrase metta.

    There used to be some conservatives who would be a better fit with Buddhism. Up here in Canada, we used to have people who called themselves “Red Tories.” Perhaps unfortunately, they are now largely extinct. Their intellectual leader was a philosopher named George Grant. In the end, however, he had a more lasting influence on lefties of my generation than on the Conservative party. If conservatives today were more like him, Christopher Ford would have a case.

    Grant was suspicious of what he regarded as liberalism’s (and by extension modern western civilization’s) faith in progress, in technological solutions, to create the good life. He linked this with excessive individualism that undermined the communitarian values he thought essential to harmonious living. Unlike conservatives (on both sides of the border) today, he did not regard the State as the principal vehicle for these tendencies. Rather, he was a critic of corporate capitalism, and favoured social programs to alleviate its effects. His fans on the left were generally less convinced that Christianity (even in non-fundamentalist, philosophical version he preferred), and what he identified as the older English conservative tradition, could serve as a corrective to the faults of modernity.

  3. Michael Slott says:

    Michael – Yes, you’re right – there have been a number of conservatives who have been both critical of capitalism and sympathetic toward the plight of workers and others who have been hurt by this system. I suppose Catholic conservatives like Pope John Paul II could fit into this category as well. He was rigidly traditional in matters of religious doctrine, but was supportive of efforts to create more social justice in the context of a capitalist economy. Whether due to religious beliefs and/or anti-individualistic social philosophies, this brand of conservatism is somewhat less opposed to Buddhism’s basic message, although it’s still not a very good fit.

  4. mufi says:

    Well said, Michael.

    I suppose that the most charitable thing to do is to pick from the best of self-described “conservatives” (in one’s opinion) when writing a critique of conservatism. In this sense, it sounds like Christopher Ford is a good foil for liberals and progressives.

    Re: the Buddha and “neoliberal capitalism”, I’ve gathered that early Buddhists faced wealth disparities and violent regimes that are at least as bad as what we moderns face, yet Gotama hardly comes across in the texts as a political gadfly. That’s not to say that he endorsed any of this – he did preach renunciation, after all – but I still feel like caution is warranted whenever I feel tempted to suggest that the Buddha would have endorsed my politics (such as they are), were he alive today.

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Gotama probably wouldn’t endorse anyone in the current US election, but except for the low tax policy, I’ve got to say this does sounds more Democratic than Republican 🙂

    Kutadanta Sutta
    (Digha Nikaya 5)

    10. “Long ago, O Brahman, there was a king by name Wide-Realm [Maha Vijita], mighty with great wealth and large property; with stores of silver and gold; of aids to enjoyment; of goods and corn; with his treasure-houses and his granaries full. Now, when King Wide-Realm was once sitting alone, the following thought occurred to him: ’I have in abundance all the good things a mortal can enjoy. The whole wide circle of the earth is mine by conquest to possess. It would be well if I were to offer a great sacrifice that should ensure me well-being and welfare for many days.’

    “And he had the Brahman, his chaplain, called; and telling him all that he had thought, he said:

    ’So I would wish, O Brahman, to offer a great sacrifice—let the Venerable One instruct me how—for my happiness and my welfare for many days.’

    11. “Thereupon the Brahman who was chaplain said to the King, ’The king’s country, Sire, is harassed and harried. There are robbers abroad who pillage the villages and townships, and who make the roads unsafe. Were the king, so long as that is so, to levy a fresh tax, truly His Majesty would be acting wrongly. But if His Majesty might think, “I’ll soon put a stop to these scoundrels’ game by degradation and banishment, and fines and bonds and death!” their crimes would not be satisfactorily stopped. The remnant left unpunished would still go on harassing the realm. Now there is one method to adopt to put a thorough end to this disorder. Whoever in the King’s realm devote themselves to farming and keeping cattle, to them let His Majesty, the King, give food and seed-corn. [11] Whoever in the King’s realm devote themselves to trade, to them let His Majesty, the King, give capital. [12] Whoever there be in the King’s realm who devote themselves to government service, to them let His Majesty, the King, give wages and food. [13] Then those men, following each his own business, will no longer harass the realm; the king’s revenue will go up; the country will be quiet and at peace; and the populace, pleased one with another and happy, dancing their children in their arms, will dwell with open doors. [14]

    “Then King Wide-Realm, O Brahman, accepted the word of his chaplain, and did as he had said. And those men, following each his business, harassed the realm no more. And the king’s revenue went up. And the country became quiet and at peace. And the populace, pleased one with another and happy, dancing their children in their arms, dwelt with open doors.

    And of course the whole doctrine of anatta could be read as a Never Trump manifesto.

    • mufi says:

      In my experience, this sutta usually comes up in the context of “Buddhism and politics” discussions like these…so often in fact that, in a collection as encyclopedic in size as the Pali Canon, I’m tempted to think that it actually represents the scarcity of political thought in early Buddhism (especially relative to non-Buddhist ancient thinkers, like Aristotle and Confucius). But a rare gem is a gem, nonetheless.

      As for the sutta’s relationship to modern political thought, I would agree that (in a US context) it’s a better fit for Democrats than for Republicans, but not necessarily a poor fit for all Republicans. For example, the simplicity and universality of the policy that it recommends for distributing wealth (“food and seed-corn”, “capital”, or “wages and food”) to the king’s subjects reminds me somewhat of conservative arguments for a [universal or guaranteed] basic income (e.g. as described here).

      Perhaps a “conservative” of the Christoper Ford kind can get behind something like that, but by no means would I generalize that support to all “conservatives”, given how these labels can serve as umbrella terms for coalitions of strange bedfellows (albeit, those who are likely united by some deep-seated cognitive models of morality, as argued by social scientists like Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff).

  6. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I thought I was the only one who keeps quoting the Kutadanta Sutta like a broken record …. it’s rathet obscure (eg not in Access to Insight). I first encounted it in AK Warder’s exhaustive Indian Buddhism, which collected together sutta references to politics and society in a chapter that tries to describe the early sangha’s relation to society. There’s actually quite a bit, but of course only a small fraction of the Canon.

    I have to admit that many of the political references in the suttas seem to me to be asides, introduced to help make some other point. The advice given to Wide-Realm really amounted to “you’d be better off spending your wealth on your subjects than wasting it on an expensive sacrifice.” The folly of sacrifical ritual is the main topic of the sutta. Likewise, the defence of republican institutions I referred to in another recent post was primarily a warning to not to allow any successor to dominate the Sangha after Gotama’s death.

    Still, I think Warder is right that “Sramanas such as the Buddha hoped from their vantage outside society to exercise some influence within it.” I think that the focus was much more ethical than political. But ethics have political consequences. Of course, I wasn’t really trying to suggest that we should take our politics from the suttas, or that the policies adopted by Wide Realm are really relevant today (despite some serindipidous resonance). But Gotama was not the totally apolitical, otherworldly recluse ,(not anyone here, I think) some of his western diciples would prefer. I think it’s useful to remember that. American politics in this election cycle should supply a meditation on the danger of being apolitical.

    As for guaranteed minimum income, it’s something everyone should support. I suspect once adopted it would so clearly be good public policy that it would be accepted across the political spectrum, as has universal public healthcare anywhere it has been fully implemented. Problem is that most(obviously not all) contemporary consevatives have hang-ups about “entitlements” and “something for nothing” that actually miss the point. So we’re back to the conservative delusion about social realities.


  7. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Mufi, something else you mentioned is peraps more relevant and important than labling Gotama’s or anyone else’s politics. You suggested that political “labels can serve as umbrella terms for coalitions of strange bedfellows (albeit, those who are likely united by some deep-seated cognitive models of morality. . .}.”

    Very true, IMO. I been thinking a lot lately about empathy, the human capacity to empathize with others, and its limits, or perhaps better, the constraints on it. We seemed to be hard-wired for empathy, but perhaps its original scope was limited to family & friends. We can extend it, even to all humankind. Perhaps the central message of all the great ethical teachers is that we should. Perhaps “cognitive models of morality” differ importantly in the degree to which they allow empathy to operate and extend itself. A “conservative” who places primary emphasis on, say, self-reliance and individual responsibilty is less likely to see the wisdom in a guaranteed income than a someone who has enough empathy to easily imagine themselves in the shoes of a person who is in need. Such a conservative need not be a racist, in fact may find racism quite antithetical to their values. But a racist, a person who has been conditioned to regard people of a different colour as “other,” not worthy of empathy, is apt to identify as “conservative.”

    Maybe “Buddhist politics,” if there can be such a thing at all, is just metta, just cultivating empathy as a virtue.

  8. mufi says:

    Michael (Finley): It’s not unlikely that you were involved in a majority of the “Buddhism and politics” discussions that I’ve participated in (my exposure to Buddhism is really that short and narrow), but you’re not the only one to cite source texts from the Pali Canon re: how a wise monarch should respond to crime and poverty. See, for example, Bikkhu Bodhi’s video lecture on “A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street”, which starts here, although he focuses on source texts in Part 2.

    I watched that lecture a few years ago and recall being less impressed by the traditional textual support for B. Bodhi’s perspective than by his general knowledge of contemporary politics and, as your conclusion above would predict, by his empathy and compassion for everyone involved, especially for the less fortunate.

  9. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I agree that the direct political content of the Canon isn’t all that “impressive.” I think it is significant (to reiterate) primarily because it suggests that Gotama did not think political and social issues are irrelevant to those “on the path,” and that’s only important to the extent that it may help discouage the belief among modern meditators (who might take what Gotama supposedly said seriously) that they can divorce themselves from society & politics. It’s the ethical message of Gotama, or perhaps the ethical concerns that can be derived from the Buddhist gestalt or implicit “cognitive model of morality” that has relevent value — which beings us back the Michael (slott’s) original issue: Why it is difficult for (many who call themselves) conservative to embrace Buddhist ideas.

    • mufi says:

      Yeah, I’m actually quite fond of texts like the one you cited (thus my earlier use of “gem” to describe it), so to clarify my earlier comment about B. Bodhi’s presentation: I felt his conclusions were undetermined by his traditional sources: that is, his modern supplements – like the epidemiological data that correlates with economic inequality – seemed like more relevant supports for his position on the Occupy Wall St. movement.

      Why does this matter? Because I can imagine someone who held the opposite position on Occupy Wall St. – say, that the political left grossly exaggerates the harms of economic inequality and those protesters should spend their time more wisely (studying in school or working at careers) – coming away from those same traditional sources with a very different interpretation. They might read the part about levying new taxes as “acting wrongly” as an absolute and thereby deprive the social welfare program, described in the following verses, of the revenue it would actually require in order to be effective or fiscally sound. As much as I might argue with that interpretation – say, to rationalize the anti-tax clause as situational and a “skillful means” to improving that particular society or regime – I must admit that, a priori, I simply disagree with its anti-tax sentiment, regardless of its origins.

      This scenario is hardly unique to Buddhism, of course. In a Christian context, it would be like arguing with Biblical fundamentalists, who – while quite pious in their own rigid way – miss the forest (spirit) for the trees (letters). I’d like to say that a shared contemplative practice would bring our interpretations of the (policy-relevant) texts more in line with each other, but there is no guarantee of that, particularly given the force of “tribal” identity, which has a way of superseding even religion, dividing Christians into liberals and conservatives, not to mention various sects. I expect the same of Buddhists, notwithstanding the current left skew among Western Buddhists.

  10. steve mareno says:

    While the subject is interesting, I find the words conservative and liberal have lost all meaning these days, and to compare political philosophies and bring them into Buddhism in a comparative manner is intrinsically dualistic, so it’s not very Buddhist. On some topics I’m conservative, on some I’m liberal, and on some I’m middle of the road. But as a Zen practitioner it’s not that simple. Which means that my take on these issues, and on life, would seem very confusing to someone w/ no Zen experience. One day I may lean one way and another day lean the other way. Each moment presents us w/ an opportunity to experience life simply as it is, and today I am not the person that considered these things yesterday, nor am I the same person that considered them even 5 seconds ago. To be in the moment is to address life w/o preconceived ideas and philosophies of any kind.

    • mufi says:

      This might be a difference between Zen and the Nikaya Buddhism that’s most often discussed here. After all, the early Buddhists emphasized practice as a cultivation of wholesome or skillful mental states. We may very well experience unwholesome or unskillful mental states for quite some time…over multiple lives even…but that goal of practice is to phase out the latter in favor of the former, thereby stabilizing our enlightenment.

      So what sort of politics would a modern arahant embrace? Whatever it is, I don’t think it would likely fluctuate radically from moment to moment or from day to day, such that a Clinton supporter wakes up a Trump supporter the next morning, then wakes up a Johnson supporter the next day, etc. That’s not how I experience “non-self” and I presume that’s no less true for an arahant, although I can imagine one who supports none of the above, which itself qualifies as a kind of mental stability over time.

  11. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I come back again to empathy. Much of traditional Buddhist meditation either deliberately cultivates empathy, or is, I think condusive to empathy even if not specifically directed toward it. When we recognize that we are only temporary lacuna in the vast web of existence, when we cease to see the world in purely self-centred terms, the equality of of us all as fellow sufferers can hardly be avoided. Conversely, if we begin by recognizing this equality, it is increasingly difficult to cling to a self-centred world view.

    The Nikaya practice of Brahma-vihara meditation deliberately cultivates empathy, but the experience of satori or kensho in Zen seems to me to imply an empathetic frame of mind. Perhaps the latter assertion is clarified or supported by recent psychological study of what’s referred to by the researchers as the experience of awe:

    “Thus, an awe-inducing stimulus — whether a stunning landscape, an intense religious experience [or, I add, certain meditative experiences] . . . gives us a sense of vastness, seeming much larger than us and the things we are used to, whether physically or metaphorically. . . .. By challenging our concept of ourselves and the world around us, awe-inducing stimuli force us to adjust our cognitive schema to accommodate them. . . . Shiota and colleagues (2007) found that students who thought about how they felt when they encountered a ‘really beautiful’ natural scene much more strongly endorsed feeling ‘small or insignificant’ and ‘connected with the world around me’ than those who wrote about a time when they felt another positive emotion. . . . So, awe may focus our attention on the here and now, but research indicates that it also prompts us to think in more self-transcendent ways, shifting our focus from inward concern to an outward sense of universality and connectedness.”

    Of course, “tribal identity” and other conditions can contrain and defeat the capacity for empathy, even among those who acknowlege the Brahma-viharas or who believe they have self-trancendent Buddha nature. The role of monks in the recent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and the support of Zen masters for Japanese Imperialism in the last World War unfortuneatly testify to this.

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