Can You Be a Conservative and a Buddhist?


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.