polaticaHere in the United States, we are preparing to enter a season of political fear and loathing that may rival or exceed that of 1968. Two presidential candidates, each of whom is detested by millions of people, are apparently prepared to do everything they can to increase each other’s negatives still further. People on all sides of the political spectrum are anticipating the next few months with dread, and the election’s outcome with real fear.

Of course, American politics has demonstrated its potential for ugliness throughout our nation’s history, but the recent trend toward all-out partisan vitriol is well documented. Faced with the barrage of vituperation pouring out of every media orifice, it is understandable that many people would like to tune out, to just ignore it until it’s over. Those of us who are active in politics have the same feelings, but turning away from the contest is not an option; somehow, we’ll have to suck it up.

Gotama taught that all conditioned things are dukkha, and politics is certainly no exception. But he also taught that our reaction to dukkha, our compulsion to grasp at what we lack and escape what we fear, is what keeps us enslaved in reactive thinking, feeling and behavior. This not only keeps us on one delusional goose chase after another, it prevents us from seeing and being with our experience as it really is. As Thich Nhat Hanh might say, it makes us fail to show up for our appointment with life.

The same is true for political dukkha. If we allow ourselves to be driven by our reactive hatred of the other side, we contribute to the atmosphere of knee-jerk, intolerant partisanship that makes it so difficult to have a rational public discussion of the issues facing our society. If we withdraw and hide, we shirk our responsibility to participate in self-governance; when other people proceed to do that job for us, our feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness make us even less inclined to engage in the democratic process. Either way, we suffer and create suffering for others.

Freedom, Gotama taught, lies not in grasping or escape, but in embracing the reality of our experience, in learning to see it as it really is, even when we are suffering deeply. That’s not easy. It takes courage, and it takes practice. It helps to have some techniques that help us see past our initial aversion, to look deeply at how our feelings manifest in the body, and see what’s actually there.

For the last year or so, I’ve been working with a contemplative technique called Focusing. It was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Gendlin, a student of the famous psychologist, Carl Rodgers, at the University of Chicago. Researching the factors that make psychotherapy effective, Gendlin discovered that far more important than the therapeutic technique or the therapist was the patient’s ability to check in with their physical sensations to clarify the significance of their emotions. He developed Focusing to help clients get more out of their therapy sessions, and soon discovered the method could help all kinds of people cope with difficult emotions, move beyond action blocks, and feel a greater sense of wholeness and personal growth.

Gendlin called his method “Focusing” because it involves checking words, images and other symbols with sensations in the body to clarify indistinct feelings and emotions, a set of sensations he called the “felt sense.” After spending time feeling into the felt sense of a moment or situation, the focuser offers words to try to describe what they are feeling, observing with friendly curiosity how the feelings change in reaction to the words or images. The feelings may move, shift in tone or grow more intense as the focusing session continues. Through this process, the focuser may experience fresh and often surprising insights into the genesis of his or her emotional states.

This may sound somewhat exotic, but we do it all the time. When you’re searching for a word you can’t quite recall, how do you proceed? You try one word after another, and if you are fortunate you remember the word you’re looking for. How do you know which word is right, and which is wrong? The wrong ones just “feel wrong,” and when you hit on the correct word, there’s a release, an easing, a feeling of “aha!” As you search, you might have an indistinct tendril of the word you’re looking for, perhaps a sound or an image, that you keep refreshing in your mind, hoping the “aha” feeling will come. Gendlin theorized that all meaning is created this way, beginning with a felt sense in the body that is resolved through a relationship with language and other symbols.

Practitioners who are familiar with mindfulness meditation can learn Focusing readily, because they are already experienced with feeling into physical sensations and making note of their feeling tone and emotional quality. What Focusing adds is an interactive attitude of nurturing and communicating with the felt sense, inviting it to share its message. In my own experience, my Focusing sessions have been some of the most intense and revealing contemplative experiences I’ve had, and have revealed insights into my personal development that had been opaque to me, sometimes for my whole life. I also find that the interactive nature of Focusing helps keep the attention from wandering, and can lead to states of emotional resolution, deep peace, and joy.

What’s all this got to do with politics? Focusing can help us cope with any difficult emotion, such as the fear and loathing we associate with political nastiness. As with all strong emotions, the surface details often obscure the underlying patterns of perception and reaction. Is this anger really just anger? Where is all this emotional charge coming from? And is it really about a candidate and his or her positions, or are those just triggers that release emotions that have another source entirely? Focusing can help us understand how our emotions unfold and the kinds of mental and emotional patterns that cause us to react the way we do. It can also help us move past that reactivity, so that we can engage in political activity with more clarity and equanimity and less suffering.

The point of bringing mindfulness to our political experience is not to eliminate or suppress our anger and fear, or our passion and enthusiasm, for that matter. Politics is always about conflict; it is what we have instead of naked coercion of the weak by the strong. Powerful emotions will never be far away. As with many aspects of life, sometimes we will have to be in conflict with other people. If we can bring mindfulness to that place of struggle, we can avoid either being swept away or burned out by our emotions. And we can create a space where compassion can arise, motivating us to seek justice for others and cautioning us not to demonize our opponents. When we discover that there can be peace, and even joy, right in the midst of our political dukkha, that freedom will give us the inner resources to stay in the struggle, no matter how ugly it may become, and be agents of wisdom instead of reactivity and fear.

When Practice Circle meets on Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 8 pm CDST, we will use our feelings about politics as a way to explore Focusing techniques, and vice versa. To join us, come to zoom.us and enter meeting code 968 569 855. To learn more about our online dharma practice group, visit the Practice Circle page here. And to learn more about Focusing, visit the website of the Focusing Institute here.

UPDATE: On June 12 we preempted this practice so that we could share a compassion practice for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando that morning. We will try Focusing with politics again when we meet on June 26, same time!

No Comments

  1. AndreasWinsnes on July 4, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Buddhism can be defined in different ways, but a minimalistic definition is that Buddhism is mindfulness and detachment. According to this definition it’s a contradiction to talk about “politically attached Buddhism”.

    Claiming to be politically engaged without being attached to politics is like claiming that one can engage in hedonistic luxuries without being attached to it.

    From the above definition it follows logically that Buddhism has to be apolitical.

    Ironically, it also follows that my need to write this comment proves that I have now once again strayed from the non-path of detachment.

    There are many opinions about Buddhism, and there is no scientific evidence which can prove that one opinion is truer than the other, so this comment is just an alternative view to what’s written in the main article.

    No point arguing about which definition of Buddhism is true. Each one of us just have to follow our own heart and insights on this non-path.

    • Mark Knickelbine on July 5, 2016 at 9:00 am

      To decide not to act politically is in itself a political action. If you live in society, you are enmeshed in that society’s politics, regardless of whether or not you actively participate. To the extent that laws and policies contribute to the suffering or well being of others, those of us fortunate to live in a democracy, if we wish to be compassionate, have an obligation to act intentionally in the political realm. Whatever version of Buddhism I’m attracted to will not change that. It is hard to engage in politics without being affected by grasping and aversion, but that is why we practice, to learn how freedom is possible in the midst of difficult situations and emotions. But unless one remains permanently absorbed in the Eighth Jhana in a monastery somewhere, any movement in the world is dangerous. Even Gotama, so the Pali texts say, was compelled to participate in political disputes, out of compassion for those around him.

    • Nick on July 11, 2016 at 3:14 am

      “Claiming to be politically engaged without being attached to politics is like claiming that one can engage in hedonistic luxuries without being attached to it.”

      This is not the case. Engaging in activities that are necessary, such as administering a monastery, can be done without attachment.

      The comparison to hedonism is invalid.

      This link about how Buddhists should contribute to government might help: https://www.mahidol.ac.th/budsir/Part2.html#6

      • AndreasWinsnes on July 12, 2016 at 8:24 am

        Don’t know if it’s only my browser, but it appears like Nick has on a later date posted messages in the middle of an earlier conversation between me and Mark. If new participants can post new comments in the middle of a thread, the thread may appear confusing when people read it.

  2. AndreasWinsnes on July 5, 2016 at 10:47 am

    Hehe, just by replying to your last comment I engage in a political debate and thereby contradict myself, which is kind of funny 🙂

    It’s okay that different people have different opinions about Buddhism. Since detachment is a cornerstone in Buddhism one can argue that it would be a contradiction if one has a desire to change the opinions of others. Neither should one be attached to the viewpoint that Buddhism is apolitical.

    So have no aversion against socially engaged Buddhism. Just let things and people be as they are.

    But an alternative to this kind of Buddhism is to be satisfied with the fact that a politically detached Arahant, for example, lead by his or her own example. Showing people that it is possible to live a life without strings and attachments will in itself have a positive social effect, indirectly encouraging others to leave the pack and live freely.

    Life on Earth has room for both the Arahant and the Bodhisattva. Which one is best? Who knows?

    • Mark Knickelbine on July 6, 2016 at 10:05 am

      I certainly take your point that the influence we have over others simply by our example may be more powerful than our intentional acts of trying to help others. But my sense of ethics is this: if I truly internalize the understanding that the division between self and other is largely fictional, then feeling natural compassion for others is not an attachment but simply the spontaneous opening of the heart. I will try to pay careful attention and be aware of how people’s behavior arises from their suffering and delusion, and not judge them on the basis of abstract labels. And I will be trying to listen carefully to my own suffering and delusion, aware of how it influences my understanding and behavior. But if someone is being abused, I can’t just let them be. The point of awakening then is to know what’s really happening and what my most compassionate response can be, and then have the courage to do it.

      • AndreasWinsnes on July 7, 2016 at 4:48 am

        Many people get involved in politics in order to help those who are suffering, but one can do this without basing it on a mindset of detachment. One can base it on simple humanism for example.

        Different individuals have different roles in a society. The role of Buddhists is to practice mindfulness and detachment, and teach others about it if they are interested.

        Theravada Buddhists help many abused individuals by teaching them mindfulness and letting them stay in a more healthy community.

        One can arrange meditation courses where people learn how to disengage from political thoughts, but this is just part of learning how to be free from all thoughts and emotions in general.

        However, if one teach people that it’s enough to be kind of quasi-mindful and semi-detached during political activism, one will probably end up in a quagmire in the jungle of opinions.

        If mindfulness is politicized one will alienate many who might have been interested in learning more about it.

        Mindfulness is beyond all thoughts, also political thoughts. Everyone can practice it, no matter what they believe on the level of thoughts and emotions, independently of whether they are liberal or conservative, democratic or authoritarian, cf. Buddhism in oppressive regimes in Asia.

        The Bodhisattva’s path is admirable, but one got to remember that if something like nibbana is the non-goal, then one has no other option than to sooner or later let go of absolutely all attachments to others. It’s a logical impossibility to be detached and politically attached at the same time.

        Being mindful about politics is a good thing, on a general level, but the moment one starts to focus on particular values and opinions, which always are on the level of thoughts and emotions, it may quickly lead to passive agressiveness when people in a meditation circle start to disagree with each other. One can experiment with this, but remember that social conflicts will lead to a conflicted mind, unless one has reached a very advanced level of mindfulness, like the Buddha when he discussed politics.

        Humbleness, knowing your own limits, is therefore important, because the road from detachment to attachment can be very fast if one is a novice on the non-path of awakening.

        I myself have now strayed from this non-path by writing this comment, because I notice that my ego desires involvement.

        The desire to help others can lead all the way to zealotism and pathological altruism. This is not a problem in this forum here, but keep in mind that compassion in Buddhism is free from passion.

        • Mark Knickelbine on July 7, 2016 at 9:52 am

          I realize the highly problematic nature of approaching political action mindfully and from an authentic intention of compassion. But all kinds of life activities — marriage, parenthood, livelihood, commerce, even charity — are fraught with similar dangers. Confronting such dangers, failing frequently, and learning a bit more everyday, is the nature of my mindfulness practice. Sitting on a cushion, clarifying and concentrating my awareness, and cultivating kindness, compassion, and acceptance, are just exercise to help me where it counts, in my engagement with the world. Monastic withdrawal from the world is the only place to escape these challenges, and if we all did that, who would feed the monastics?

          I deeply appreciate you engaging me on this topic, Andreas!

      • Michael Finley on July 27, 2016 at 11:04 am

        Mark wrote: “I certainly take your point that the influence we have over others simply by our example may be more powerful than our intentional acts of trying to help others. But my sense of ethics is this: if I truly internalize the understanding that the division between self and other is largely fictional, then feeling natural compassion for others is not an attachment but simply the spontaneous opening of the heart. I will try to pay careful attention and be aware of how people’s behavior arises from their suffering and delusion, and not judge them on the basis of abstract labels. And I will be trying to listen carefully to my own suffering and delusion, aware of how it influences my understanding and behavior. But if someone is being abused, I can’t just let them be. The point of awakening then is to know what’s really happening and what my most compassionate response can be, and then have the courage to do it.”

        Mark, very well said.

        True, most politicians are far from recognizing that the separate self is a fiction; Validation of self is certainly a reason why more than a few seek political careers. But I think that, Donald Trump not withstanding, on the whole political activists, including elected politicians, aren’t extraordinarily self-centred. They are typically not enlightened beings, but at least in the progressive political circles I’ve frequented, a genuine desire to help others is a very real motive for political engagement. Significantly more than among people who aren’t engaged.

    • Nick on July 11, 2016 at 3:25 am

      AndreasWinsnes’ posts are loaded with ‘hyper-sensitivity’, showing a belief in a ‘self’ and then working to annihilate this ‘self’ that is believed to be real. This is not Buddhist practise, which is why the poster has no real idea about what ‘non-attachment’ is.

      ‘Mindfulness’ is not ‘beyond thoughts’. ‘Mindfulness’ means ‘to remember’ to practise the dhamma.

      Buddhist practise is simply to observe suffering & act to overcome suffering.

      Suffering is not caused by ‘selves’. It is caused by ignorance.

      No ‘self’ in required to give a political opinion about what is compassionate & healthy.

      With the American government now a violent corrupt corporate entity engaged more & more in sponsoring international terrorism & imperialism, it is quite simple to point out what is unwholesome, immoral & harmful without any attachment.

      • AndreasWinsnes on July 11, 2016 at 9:43 am

        Nick, everything can be done without attachment, if one is already detached. But detachment is difficult. Buddhism usually recommends that one should meditate on neutral objects like the breath for example, because it is too easy to concentrate on more exciting things, and get attached to them.

        One can choose a movie, or politics, or sex for example, as an object of meditation, but I have never seen this recommended in mainstream Buddhism, especially if one is a novice.

        Mindfulness is beyond thoughts, because it observes thoughts, and therefore cannot be a thought itself. It’s just the “pure” awareness of neutral observation.

        On the other hand, if you want to define mindfulness differently, go ahead. It’s a free country.

        This is a forum for secular Buddhism, whatever that means, so in this context it doesn’t make much sense to express orthodoxy and dogmatism in regard to views about mindfulness and compassion.

        Have done research in the so-called New Age movement, and been in many subcultures, so I basically don’t care that different people have different views about mindfulness and compassion.

        One major difference is the path of the Arahat and the path of the Bodhisattva. I obviously prefer the first now, but have no problem seeing that many will interpret the Bodhisattva ideal in a way that can support their own political activism.

        It’s wise, however, to carefully study mindfulness in the Theravada tradition, or similar traditions, before dismissing it as some kind of “selfish” or “uncaring” path.

        Engage in politics as much as you want, and justify it however you like to. Only saying that this is not necessary at all if the non-goal is simple mindfulness here and now.

  3. AndreasWinsnes on July 7, 2016 at 11:38 am

    It would be self-contradictory if I tried to change your mind about trying to change the mind of others.

    Engaging in cravings is not necessarily dangerous, but it will prevent advanced levels of samadhi and mindfulness. It’s important to be aware of what one loses if one is satisfied with half-way mindfulness when engaging in the challenges of politics.

    Desiring to put challenges in front of mindfulness, in order to test it, is a common mistake. Many people say: “It’s relatively easy to meditate in a monastery, because then you don’t have to face the dangers and challenges of ordinary life”. But this is probably an excuse for not being able to properly meditate in a monastery or anywhere else for that matter.

    In meditation one challenges nothing. There is no need to, because mindfulness in itself is more challenging than what most people can endure.

    Talking about mindfulness, in relation to politics for example, is like talking about workout instead of doing the workout. Like reading a book about Karate when one could have just practiced it instead (with a teacher).

    Many Buddhists give lectures in monasteries, before and after meditation sessions for example, but then it’s usually closely related to the meditative lifestyle. No need to involve politics in this.

    If one simply sits down and meditate, one will gradually transcend all thoughts, also thoughts about politics. One can easily argue that from a Buddhist perspective this is better than to stay on the level of opinions where the mind is usually entangled in ideas and passions.

    You have your ideas about how Buddhism can be applied in politics, but other Buddhists can be very conservative and think that true compassion is to help people in a way that is very different from how you prefer to help them. And whatever you say in an attempt to change the minds of these conservatives, you will most likely not succeed in a degree that really matters.

    The world is driven by a great hunger. Not even Buddha or Gandhi managed to change politics in any significant way.

    And those who are willing to listen to you are most likely already compassionate enough to avoid causing or supporting oppressive policies.

    The hawks in politics will just dismiss SBA as “hippies” using Buddhism as a way to win political battles. And right-wing people will spit on mindfulness if it’s associated with a Lefty moral worldview.

    However, I have no illusion that the arguments I present here will change the minds of Buddhist laypeople who are interested in politics and have a desire to involve Buddhism in it. Perhaps this involvement is needed to balance the political influence of more authoritarian Buddhists. But it will never be genuine mindfulness or detachment.

    By the way, real monks don’t need fancy monasteries, only a bowl of rice, water and cheap clothing. They are not dependent on the financial contributions of laypeople.

    Politicians will continue with what they do, and monks will do the same. As it has always been.

  4. AndreasWinsnes on July 8, 2016 at 5:30 am

    My last comment above may seem a little hard, so it should be mentioned that a little mindfulness in politics is better than no mindfulness.

    Buddhists, however, should have the same attitude as doctors who provide medicine to everyone, the good and the bad. Buddhists should provide knowledge about mindfulness to everyone, no matter what they believe on the level of thoughts and emotions.

    Liberals struggle with the so-called “paradox of tolerance”, namely the question whether one should be tolerant toward the intolerant, but this is not a problem from the perspective of mindfulness, because mindfulness transcends all thoughts, also thoughts about paradoxes.

    Many today try to use mindfulness in an attempt to reach some goal, in therapy, business, martial arts or in politics. It’s therefore necessary to remember that authentic mindfulness has no goal.

    Mindfulness is simply neutral observation of inner and outer phenomena. The only “non-goal” of mindfulness is to enhance neutral observation.

    If one tries to use this neutrality in an attempt to reach an exterior goal, one will no longer be neutral, because one has taken a stand. And then it’s no longer true mindfulness.

    Mindfulness has most “effect” when one has no desire of attaining anything. For example, if you meditate in order to realize a state of happiness or equanimity, you will not experience that which mindfulness is really about: enhancing neutral observation, which is the same as experiencing pure consciousness. Pure in the sense that mindfulness is independent from desires and aversions, thoughts and emotions.

    And the best way to enhance neutral observation, for its own sake, is to meditate when one feels uncomfortable. It’s similar to increasing muscle strenght. It will burn and hurt a bit. But there is no goal. Only the mind itself. And the realization that life is suffering.

    That’s it. Either one recognizes this, or one chooses a different path.

    Speaking and thinking more about it is basically a waste of time from the viewpoint of thoughtless mindfulness.

    But if one is satisfied with just having some degree of enhanced awareness during political conflicts, one can learn a thing or two from Buddhism. The spirit of Tibetan debating competitions, for example, will improve the quality of political discussions. But this belongs to the lesser arts from the viewpoint of original mindfulness.

  5. Mark Knickelbine on July 8, 2016 at 8:00 am

    As I write this, my heart is hurting over the latest salvo of hate-driven murder in my country. If I have impressed you as trying to put forward some agenda, I apologize. This post, and my practice at this point, are about how to keep a mind of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity when you live in the world as it is now. Because I am suffering in this atmosphere, I expect others are as well, and the depth of my desire to help them is something I am helpless before. To those who share my lot, I offer what I can. I have read the Pali texts and Theravadin doctrine, and of course if you take what they say as Gospel then there is no Secular Buddhism and laypeople like me had better support the monks and hope for a better rebirth. I think what Gotama said was that each of us has to make the path for ourselves, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I am not interested in attaching myself to the notion of perfection, nor do I have any wish to judge the practice of others. How do I train to see and do the most compassionate thing? That’s the only thing I’m interested in at this point.

    This is the teaching that resonates with me:

    As a mother would risk her life
    to protect her child, her only child,
    even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
    with regard to all beings.
    With good will for the entire cosmos,
    cultivate a limitless heart:
    Above, below, & all around,
    unobstructed, without hostility or hate.
    Whether standing, walking,
    sitting, or lying down,
    as long as one is alert,
    one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
    This is called a sublime abiding
    here & now.

  6. AndreasWinsnes on July 8, 2016 at 9:47 am

    All people who is capable of feeling empathy will understand what you are talking about. And those who have faith in the path of the Bodhisattva even more.

    Problems arise however when one tries to turn empathy into politics. So many people have different views on which policies and ideologies are best for human beings in the long run. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    When not even Ajahn Brahm can convince the Theravada leadership that nuns should have the same status as monks, then it proves that talks about compassion and mindfulness may not be enough to solve serious conflicts. Because try convincing the Theravada leadership that they lack metta and mindfulness. They expelled Ajahn Brahm, despite having realised more advanced stages of mindfulness than most people can hope to experience in a lifetime.

    Mindfulness is like Switzerland. It’s neutral. It’s not on the side of any political ideas, ideologies, religions or moral worldviews. No thought or emotion, not even compassion and good will, can claim that it’s supported by mindfulness. Mindfulness is only on one side: the mind itself. And everyone is a mind.

    Mindfulness just neutrally observes thoughts and emotions, like the sun shines on both the good and the wicked. It’s like a valley that doesn’t care whether a good man or a bad man rides through it. Because both saints and sinners share the same basic consciousness.

    Mindfulness demands only one thing, namely that one develops enough distance to all phenomena, including thoughts and emotions, so that they can be observed neutrally.

    This demand is not a commandment from some religion, ideology or moral theory. It’s just an expression of how the mind works: if you are interested in experiencing so-called pure consciousness, you must unplug it from thoughts and emotions. And the more you avoid conflicts, the easier it is to disengage from the inner chatter of the brain.

    Experiment with it and see for yourself whether this is true or not.

    It does not matter whether one has liberal or conservative thoughts, as long as one learns to disengage from them.

    But if a person is not interested in this, he or she can do something else, and the mind will not stop him or her. If there is no afterlife, anything goes, as long as you are not caught.

    Personally I’m primarily a scientist, and think science, the search for truth, is more important than just having faith in mindfulness. And that’s why I contribute here, because you guys are more interested in science than the religious aspect of mindfulness. It’s a community I can identify with.

    But when we start talking about ethics and politics in relation to mindfulness, then people deserve to get a fair and accurate description of all the different views one can have on compassion and mindfulness.

    And fortunately it appears like it’s room for this here.

  7. AndreasWinsnes on July 13, 2016 at 6:59 am

    Being primarily a scientist I find it necessary to carefully study a topic if one wants to discuss it, so here is what I have found after some research:

    Buddha said in Brahmajala Sutta:

    1.5. ‘Monks, if anyone should speak in disparagement of me, of the Dhamma or of the Sangha, you should not be angry, resentful or upset on that account. If you were to be angry or displeased at such disparagement, that would only be a hindrance to you. For if others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, and you are angry or displeased, can you recognise whether what they say is right or not?’ ‘No, Lord.’ ‘If others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, then you must explain what is incorrect as being incorrect, saying: “That is incorrect, that is false, that is not our way, that is not found among us.” (Walshe, 1995:68)

    But what is the correct Buddhist view on politics? The problem with ideological, political and moral convictions is that most people try to find facts and arguments that can confirm their own views, which is different from a scientific attitude, because science tries to falsify theories, cf. Karl Popper.

    Perhaps the following words from Richard Gombrich, who was a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, provide an interpretation of Buddhism that will satisfy both engaged and detached practitioners of mindfulness. First he writes in “Theravada Buddhism”:

    “On this topic I disagree with some recent scholarship: I do not think that the Buddha took a serious interest in politics or intended his teaching to have political consequences. (…) Buddhism produced no parallel to the execution of Charles I; and the reason for that is yet again the reservation of its higher practice to monks and nuns.” (2006:83,88)

    Then he writes in “What the Buddha Thought”:

    “This is of course not to deny that the Buddha’s ideas can be, have been, and should be applied to politics and public affairs.” (2009:208)

    However, if Buddha himself was seriously interested in politics, why did he not write about it? He did not need to write about meditation and detachment, because he could be pretty certain that monks would remember his words. But unlike Plato and Aristotle he was not sufficiently interested in politics to write down advice that could help political leaders.

    One can learn more about views in Buddhism by listening to Paul Fuller here:


    When discussing ethics, politics and religions it’s wise to remember Nietzsche who said that convictions are a greater threat to truth than lies.

    And when scientists are debating with people of strong convictions, they should remember how the brains of hominins often work, as Milan Kundera wrote: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object”.

    Being attached to the view that Buddhism is apolitical, or the opposite, does seem to contradict the basic principle of non-craving in Buddhism.

    Perhaps this thread can help those who are trying to assess whether “social engineering” in the form of political activism is a better path than simply spending time on meditation and/or compassionate volunteer work in a community.

    • Mark Knickelbine on July 13, 2016 at 7:51 am

      Andreas, you keep assuming that politics is impossible without holding inflexible views and engaging in various forms of craving. While many people fall into these traps, it is possible to act politically from a mindset of compassion and non-attachment. It is not easy, and it requires a lot of practice. But it is possible. And once again, the dangers of clinging to views and having the Three Fires distort one’s understanding are inherent everywhere in life. Conflict is sometimes necessary; can we do what needs doing without craving and clinging? That is the practice.

      Second off, if you have read my essays elsewhere on this site, you will know that I do not consider the Pali texts to be a reliable report of Gotama’s life and teaching. There are stories of him having to get involved in political disputes within his clan and between kingdoms, and indeed within the sangha itself. If these stories have any basis in fact, then he did have to practice politics, whether or not he spoke about them, or whether any record of what he did teach survived(he didn’t write about them because he did not live in a literate culture).

      But all that is beside the point. The Gotama of the texts taught us not to rely on scriptures or authorities, but to test the teachings out in our own experience. On his deathbed he is supposed to have said, “Be a light unto yourselves, have no other light.” Our own hearts and minds are where the Path is to be found, not, ultimately, in a book (and certainly not in Nietzche).

  8. AndreasWinsnes on July 13, 2016 at 10:15 am

    People have always claimed to be engaged in politics for unselfish reasons. It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book.

    Do you really think that the political animals out there will accept the claim that your political motives are without significant cravings and biases, and that your way of politics is not a threat to the values and interests which they support from a non-Buddhist perspective?

    If Buddha was enlightened it’s reasonable to assume that an illiterate culture would not have prevented him from writing about politics if he was seriously interested in it.

    You don’t think Nikaya sources are reliable necessarily, but when you are a light unto yourself, how do you argue against an ethnocentric Buddhist who sincerely feel that his own light tells him to protect Buddhism from its political enemies?

    Perhaps you will claim that authoritarian Buddhists are cherry picking arguments from the Buddhist tradition, but they will of course claim that you are the one who is cherry picking.

    And there is no way to settle that dispute, because ethics, religions and ideologies are on the deepest level beyond science.

    The desire to help other people, and to change them, is one of the strongest desires in human societies. As long as you are driven by your heart in this way, feeling a compelling duty to use politics in order to prevent abuse and correct wrongdoings, it’s unlikely that arguments will change your mind.

    When I started commenting upon your article I didn’t seriously think that counterarguments would change the minds of those who are already convinced that “engaged Buddhism” is the right path. Perhaps it is. Who knows?

    But when one of the basic principles of orthodox Buddhism is detachment and disengagement, then it is clearly necessary, at least from a scientific perspective, to discuss whether this is compatible with the political engagement of Buddhists who want to change society.

    But one can probably predict how this debate will end: detached Buddhists will find sufficient support in the academics works of respected scientists today, and engaged Buddhists will rely on research done by other respected scholars.

    Each one of us must follow our own heart, whether this heart is apolitical or not, liberal or conservative, democratic or more authoritarian in nature. Science is of little help here.

    Regarding Nietzsche, all Buddhists who are interested in good arguments against Buddhism should read Bernard Reginster’s book “The Affirmation of Life” (Harvard University Press, 2006).

  9. orwellflash on July 16, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    I’m confused. You have said elsewhere that it’s not possible to deny that anyone’s pursuit of mindfulness is based on any motivation other than self-interest–that detachment can reasonably be seen as purely a self-serving activity. But here you seem to be saying that secular buddhists should avoid politics because engaging in politics is just another form of self-interest and a desire to control/change others.

    It may not be scientific, but I think the Bayesian probability of achieving individual and/or social well-being without engaging in political discourse and activity is less than 50%, low enough, in other words, to motivate one to be political. We are social animals, and we are unlikely to survive outside of a social context. Political activity, broadly defined, is therefore necessary. Sitting in a metaphorical cave meditating while criminals, predators, and the insane ransack your world is not a reasonable thing to do–even group defense is political. Our current world political situation constantly reminds me that detachment is not a viable option over the long run–even for relatively rich first worlders, lulled into complacency.

  10. AndreasWinsnes on July 17, 2016 at 3:13 am

    Have not said that mindfulness can only be motivated by self-interest. It depends on which perspective is used to look at phenomena.

    Scientifically I’m an a-relativistic perspectivist, which means that one should also consider the perspective that objective truths exist. It’s similar to Hawking’s model-based realism. In other words, if something is not 100 percent certain (like the sentence “thinking must exist the moment thinking occurs”) then one has to investigate all sides of it.

    From the perspective of purposeless and atheistic evolution, even altruism can be seen as a mainly selfish activity, since you help others in order to increase the chance that they will help you in return.

    Through evolution this “altruism” has become so ingrained in the primitive and automatic parts of our brains that some individuals lack the prefrontal impulse control to stop this tendency before they end up sacrificing their own lives in an attempt to save others.

    Being willing to die in an attempt to help others can therefore be seen as a brain malfunction, in one way, but this synaptic misfiring continues in our species because a group will have a better chance of surviving if some individuals lack this impulse control.

    Have argued that the main principles of Buddhism are compatible with science, not counting the religious parts of Buddhism of course. So it’s possible to claim that mindfulness and even compassion can be interpreted as pure egoism (driven by deterministic brains with faulty wiring).

    Compassion can neutralize boredom, because empathy triggers oxytocin which prevents the brain from triggering cortisol correlated with boredom. This seems cynical and clinical, but the advantage of this perspective is that it can even get psychopaths interested in compassion and mindfulness, since they struggle with boredom.

    People like Ian Brady, M.E. Thomas and Zhawq will ignore any hippie version of Buddhism, but they can understand the value of meditation if it’s explained in a cold and clinical way, with no clever attempts at trying to manipulate them into changing their minds.

    However, many of them will probably use meditation in a way which is more or less similar to the attitude of a CEO or a Samurai, which is not compatible with traditional Buddhism. But if a psychopath starts to notice that Buddhism can help him or her, then that’s better than nothing, right?

    One has to be realistic about all this however. Changing other people can be as difficult as changing the mindset of a tiger. Individuals have different brains. Traditional Buddhism will argue that they are on different karma levels. Neuroplasticity aside, nothing much one can do about that.

    But a scientist is not attached to any perspective. Kill your darlings, as they say. Cynicism, Darwinism, atheism and psychopatic attitudes are boring. After a swim in this relatively clear but stale water it’s refreshing to experience other aspects of life.

    Have always appreciated genuine empathy, those individuals who actually do something in order to help others: police officers, peacekeeping soldiers, ambulance drivers, emergency relief workers, for instance.

    Have aversion to “compassionate” hypocrites, such as hedonistic liberals and other talking-heads who think their own indifference is the same as tolerance. Aversion is not equanimity however, so can easily let go of it during meditation.

    Respect traditional Buddhists, because in one way I respect all authentic individuals, no matter what they do or think. (Personally I’m only authentic in one regard: science). Respect and authenticity, however, are also transcended during emotionless meditation.

    I’m skeptical toward political activity. It’s too much ego and dishonesty. Engaged Buddhism will clearly not lead to advanced stages of mindfulness, unless Tibetan Buddhists are right when claiming that one can work with attachments to transcend them. Have to explore that.

    Most people will say: we have to do something! It’s so easy to find arguments that can justify involvement. From the viewpoint of the hermit it’s both useless and embarrassingly self-contradictory to engage in arguments against engaged Buddhism. For example, this post here reveals my own lack of detachment.

    Mark’s approach to politics seems more sincere than how many other idealists relate to it. It’s certainly possible to observe politics in a mindful way, on a level beneath advanced stages of mindfulness.

    Many claim that the social sciences can never be neutral, and that is true in some ways, but neutral observation is possible to a large degree, with enough meditative training, demanding openness, balance and accuracy, not letting your own ethical, cultural and aesthetic preferences interfere with scientific descriptions.

    Engaged Buddhism presupposes the detachment and compassion of a surgeon. If one can do that, it clearly deserves respect. But don’t underestimate how difficult it is, and realize that pushy talk about compassion, without actually doing something to help others, is just pathetic.

    This thread can go on forever, and no words will solve fundamental disagreements, so it’s probably best to let it go. I will try to follow this advice myself. It’s only the scientist in me who appreciates addiction to a good argument.

  11. orwellflash on July 17, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Yes, back to mindfulness, we all can agree on that I assume. Before I go, as I am addicted to a good argument as well, I want to say that “advanced stages of mindfulness” are not more detached but rather more engaged in a clearer, less distorted, and more controlled way. In other words, being able to act while watching, assessing, evaluating your own conduct as well as that of others and the issue at hand. I agree: “don’t underestimate how difficult it is”. I don’t even know that it is possible, but some people certainly seem to have moved much closer to that state that I have. I experience cortisol effects as the result of stress, rather than boredom per se, but boredom and hopelessness are painful experiences that I have had in excess, and I very much want to avoid them to the extent possible. The style of mindfulness you seem to be attracted too–a withdrawal and detachment from life– while not necessarily boring as experienced by the practitioner, is certainly boring and pointless to bystanders, who often could use some help. The universe, to the extent that we currently understand it, is a rather pointless, boring place which is evolving to an even more boring place as expansion turns it into a dark, cold death. So I want to live a little, why not?, in the short time that I and our species has. We have eternity to be dead. So what would be an interesting, exciting way to spend our time? How about moving toward a more reasonable, inclusively empathetic, self-actualizing world, expanding our sphere of caring to all species of life, reveling in the amazing improbability of our existence. I could hardly suppress a sneer of cynicism reading these words coming from someone else, but…

  12. AndreasWinsnes on July 17, 2016 at 9:56 am

    The problem with modern cynicism, unlike the traditional version, is that it’s boring. The psychopath’s craving for adrenaline kicks is also boring, because adrenaline is superficial and becomes old after having experienced it enough times.

    Have had more adrenaline kicks than most people, and get bored by distractions extremely fast, but now very seldom experience boredom when living in a detached and mindful way. If I can do it, then others can do it too. Depending on their synaptic wiring of course.

    Many social conflicts will be solved if human beings learn how to deal with boredom, by following the example of those who are detached.

    By detached I mean non-attachment on a psychological level, neutrally observing activities, like taking a walk in the forest. In order to learn this properly, Buddha adviced each individual to go out to a secluded place and meditate.

    But one should not become attached to seclusion either. Only live as a hermit if your mind is fluid enough to quickly change between solitary meditation and social activities.

    Not saying that this is the only right path. Engaged Buddhism is probably better for most laypeople who prefer to stay on the level of emotions. But see it for what it is, and don’t pretend it’s something more.

    • Michael Finley on July 27, 2016 at 11:24 am

      Maybe things are different in social democratic Sweden, but in my part of the world, boredom is not the problem. Where I live, we presently have a government that ignores (among a list of others things) a growing problem of homelessness, because the homeless are marginalized, mostly Aboriginal people, and keeping taxes low has been sold as the priority. It will take political action to change this situation. The marginalized have to be given a political voice, and an alternative to conservative policies has to be advanced. Politics is not just the posturing of ambitious cynics. (see my response to Mark’s July 7 comment).

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