Which Side Are You On?

I’m reposting an article I wrote for my newsletter four years ago, just before the last U.S. presidential election. If anything, Americans are seemingly more divided in this major election year than they were in the last.  The public is polarized, and everyone seems angry.

The election will be held in the wake of the recent  “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” movements worldwide, both of which have brought many injustices to light but have also sometimes resulted in violence and the demonization and scape-goating of other human beings.

Maybe it’s a good time to take a deep breath, chill out a bit, and reflect on the relationship between religion and politics — how we might be politically engaged without becoming spiritually compromised.  To do so, we’ll have to imitate the greatest of the political leaders of history (Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King) and also that contemporary exemplar, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Anyway, here’s the article from September, 2008.

 “Which Side Are You On When You’re Nobody?”

Are you are Republican or Democrat?  A Progressive or Conservative?  Are you for Obama or McCain?

We’re now coming down to the wire in the presidential election and the feverish rhetoric and excitement will undoubtedly also be increasing.  And so too will the negativity, the demonization of the other side, the depersonalization and denigration of the opposing candidate and his supporters (and often, too, his family).  The whole ugly ball of wax of anger, resentment, and self-righteousness that seems so often to accompany politics.

Is there anything good in this?  Groucho Marx once pessimistically quipped, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” 

For us, the question is this:  Is it possible to be both politically engaged and true to one’s spiritual principles?  Is it possible to be involved in politics without the schismatic divisiveness that just alienates us further from one another?

I spent most of this past summer in personal retreat where I meditated daily on the topic of “no self” or anatman.  As is often the case with emptiness meditations, the structure of analysis is deceptively simple.  The meditation here is to first of all get in touch with the self you normally think you are – a unitary, unchanging, and independent “watcher” and “controller” of your life.  The second step is to say:  If there were a self like that, it would have to either be identical to the parts of the self or different from them.  One or the other.  Only two choices.  If there were an “I” like the one I ordinarily think there is, it would have to findable somewhere within the body and mind that make up the parts of such a “me,” or it would have to exists apart from this mind-body complex.  Same as or different from.

And then the fun begins.  Back and forth, you do this tennis match between two impossible alternatives.  “I think I must be somewhere within my body and mind,” and then you start looking for “you” there.  But how can the you you’re trying to find – the unitary, unchanging, and independent “you” – be the same as (which means “identical to,” “one with” and also “indistinguishable from”) the multiple, ever-changing, and interdependent conglomerate of physical and mental parts?  So over to the other side. “I” must be different from my parts.”  But how can that “I” am looking for exist separate from its parts?  Who would I be without my body and mind?

The point, of course, is by bouncing between these two untenable choices one will come to the realization that the “I” you’re looking for – the self we so deeply believe exists and that we so cherish and cling to – isn’t really there at all.  The self exists only as a mere imputation. It’s just a label or concept.  What we call the “self” isn’t an entity or thing.  It’s empty of being that.  It’s only a name we give to a constantly changing process.  Without the name, there ain’t nothing there.

I can’t say I really made much progress doing this meditation over and over again all summer.  The belief in the self is very deeply entrenched and desperately resists eradication.  What I did discover is how much the self wants to avoid its own demise.  The self hides from the illuminating light of reason.  It has a rather well-developed survival instinct.  It does not want to be exposed as the phantom it is.

And so it takes on many guises.  Like a parasite or vampire, it derives its very being by latching onto other things.  It sometimes masquerades as the body:  “I am a man.  I am fifty-six years old.  I am Caucasian.  I am right-handed.”  Other times it poses as one or another of the mental functions:  “I am happy, depressed, upset, or elated.”  Or “I am my memories.  I am a victim and creation of my past.”  Or “I am the seer of sights, hearer of sounds, feeler, taster, toucher.”  “I am the listener to my thoughts.”  (And if you’re the listener, then who is it doing the talking?)

So which one is it?  Who are you?  The imaginary self is constantly having an identity crisis!  It doesn’t know who it is (because it isn’t anyone) and so it adopts all these various roles at various times and says, for that moment at least, “This is who I am.”  The self is constantly impersonating a self!

Our whole lives are spent with the self desperately trying to be someone.  “I am a son, brother, father.”  “I am a lawyer, painter, insurance salesman.”  “I am a surfer, a wine connoisseur, a traveler.”  “I am a Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jew, or Muslim.”  These roles and labels give us a sense of being somebody.  They are the disguises of a non-existent self.

Perhaps some of us are drawn to politics because it too gives us a chance to be somebody:  “I am a Democrat, Republican, Independent,” etc.  And like other identities the chimerical self assumes, a partisan political persona pits itself against other identities. . . whom it definitely is not.  If I am a Democrat I’m also, by definition, not a Republican.

Splitting ourselves off from our fellow human beings is not a Buddhist practice.  Both of the two “wings” of our training – compassion and wisdom – are in fact designed to do just the opposite: to breakdown the walls of separation we’ve erected vis-à-vis others.  Compassion does this through recognizing that we’re all in the same boat, suffering here in samsara.  Wisdom does it by dispelling the illusion of a discrete, concrete self.

So let’s return to the question:  Can we be practicing our compassion and wisdom and still be politically involved?  I think it is very hard.  It is very tempting, once we’ve entered the political sphere, to engage in the exactly the kind of divisive, alienating thought and action we are trying to overcome with our spiritual discipline.

To be a Buddhist does not require us to be apolitical either.  It is not a Buddhist ideal to sit idly while what we see as injustices are perpetrated, or to live in a country that is waging war against others without objecting.  It was Mahatma Gandhi’s belief that “Those who think religion and politics are separate understand neither.”

So how to walk the political tightrope without falling into the abyss of anger towards and estrangement from those we oppose?  With Gandhi and a very few others we are presented with paragons of how to be both politically engaged while maintaining our spiritual principles.  The same secret for the harmonization of these apparently contradictory enterprises was taught by all of them.

The secret is to love your “enemy,” your political “opponent.”   The secret is to realize that those you disagree with are not, fundamentally, different from you.

Jesus said:  “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you!. . .If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?. . . If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? (Matthew 5:43-47)

Loving those whom you oppose was also the key to the nonviolent resistance perfected Gandhi-ji.  “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends,” said the Mahatma.  “But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”  The means and ends must conform.  You can’t get peace through war, a harmonious society by fostering enmity towards those you disagree with. “The pursuit of truth does not permit violence on one’s opponent,” insisted Gandhi, and this very much includes the violence of thought and speech we are tempted to indulge in when we enter the political realm.

Following the examples of both Jesus and Gandhi, Martin Luther King affords another of the rare examples of political leaders who did not lose sight of the fundamentals of a spiritual life.  He too echoes the same sentiment:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Finally, the Dalai Lama has consistently given us a contemporary example of how to stand up against injustice while not abandoning one’s spiritual ideals in the process.  The key for the Dalai Lama has also been to generate love and compassion even for — no, especially for — one’s persecutors and political opponents.  “Genuine compassion,” His Holiness teaches,

is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself.  And, just like myself, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration.  On the basis of the recognition of this equality and commonality, you develop a sense of affinity and closeness with others.  With this as a foundation, you can feel compassion regardless of whether you view the other person as a friend or an enemy.  It is based on the other’s fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection.

So as the election nears, if you think you can involve yourself in politics in the same manner as Jesus, Gandhi, King, and the Dalai Lama, then by all means “be political.”  The “you” then, of course, will not think it is affiliated with one side versus another, but will rather be identified with all sides, with all beings.

And if “you” cannot identify with and love your political opponents, it is probably better to not make matters worse by mucking around in an arena “you” are not ready to enter.  It is better to be apolitical in order to safeguard one’s spiritual practice than to abandon that practice in order to indulge oneself in political partisanship.