Is this what American Buddhism has come to? Has it become an entirely partisan endeavor? Is American Buddhism now indistinguishable from Leftist politics? Maybe that’s overstating things. But it genuinely worries me that we may be headed in that direction.
…There is a strong assumption among American Buddhists that if you believe in peace and the oneness of humankind, as the Buddha taught, then you would surely follow the political philosophy of the American Left. After all, Leftists are for love and light, and against war and badness. Conservatives stand for hate, killing, and carnage.
I used to believe that myself. But I don’t anymore.
Yuval Levin — whose new book is excellent, by the way — once noted something almost stunning in its unacknowledged obviousness: we are all liberals. That is, no one of importance wants to bring back monarchy, a landed aristocracy, or feudalism. No one of importance wants to live under communist or fascist dictatorship. Right-wingers and left-wingers alike agree on the importance of individual freedom, representative government, pluralism, rule of law, etc. And yet, political debate is like a think tank built right on top of the active fault line of psychology. However genteel the arguments, however many presuppositions and goals shared in common, it takes very little for tribal instincts to inflate any difference of opinion to apocalyptic proportions. The narcissism of small differences, Freud called it. And so, in modern American politics, the progressive wing of liberalism and the conservative wing of liberalism are both convinced that to let the other wing near power would be the prelude to Armageddon. The only cure for it, so far as I can see, is the perspective granted by time. Live long enough and pay attention, and you’ll soon become desensitized to the constant state of red alert. Your adrenal glands or your interest will give out once you realize that some, perhaps many, people just aren’t content unless they’re running around screaming with their hair on fire. Both sides are permanently convinced that the other side controls everything and are moments away from unleashing catastrophe, regardless of who is currently in power. There is no political answer to this absurd state of affairs, only a personal one — just walk away. Stop wallowing in outrage and go enjoy the many good things in life beyond politics.
Brad, as I recently feared would happen, is experiencing the same thing I did several years ago as a basically liberal-leaning fellow with an interest in religion and atheism. He’s seeing his Buddhist subculture become increasingly dominated by the same sort of militant left-wingers that insisted on fusing New Atheism to New Left identity politics, and he feels compelled to call it what it is. Being a figure of slight prominence in American Buddhism, however, he has attracted the sort of vengefulness that comes from people who use politics as an outlet for their borderline personality disorders and who are not prepared to tolerate opposition. In this case, someone has publicized the fact that Brad has a nephew who writes for conservative outlets and is a Trump supporter. In the hysterical world of online leftism, the suspicion of even a germ of thoughtcrime means that the suspect must be socially quarantined and assumed guilty by association until proven innocent. If Brad had any money or influence, he’d probably be subjected to an economic embargo to starve him into submission as well.
Buddhism in America, popularized by the baby boomers as part of their general fascination with all things exotic and mystical that promise liberation from supposedly-stultifying Western norms, has long been part of that progressive cultural orbit, so it should be no surprise, in my opinion, to see it influenced by the latest trends among culture-war reenactors. The image of Buddhist monks self-immolating to protest the Vietnam War still serves as an inspirational example of authentic political commitment among leftists. The very least modern Buddhists can do is flame a few Trump supporters on social media.
Thankfully, though, Buddhism has a self-defense mechanism built into it to prevent it from becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of partisan politics. Sitting quietly and meditating about the inherent illusoriness of existence has a way of eventually undermining rigid dogmas. Sincere practitioners will likely grow past this kind of shallow, politically-engaged Buddhism. I wouldn’t call myself a conservative any more than I would call myself a Buddhist, even though I’ve learned a lot from both, because the most important thing that I’ve learned is to be suspicious of labels and narratives. Buddhism had always taught me that we create much of our own misery by believing too strongly in the illusory solidity of our identity, and the intersectional leftist drama of the last several years taught me that the easiest way to destroy your own intellectual integrity is to identify too strongly with a political tribe. Retaining the ability to shift perspective is what allows us to see when we’re getting ready to go to war over a trivial difference and change our behavior accordingly.