- Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place
The 2008 political season in the United States can be interpreted as provisional confirmation of the assertion made by Jim Wallis, in his recent work The Great Awakening (2008), that the culture has moved beyond a period in which the religious right dominated the voice of religion in the public sphere. Wallis, writing as a "progressive evangelical," argues that the monologue of the religious right in the domain of values and the collective consequences of faith positions has ended, and that a plurality of religious and ethical voices have emerged in the collective conversation about how we should live. Wallis contests the hegemony of the right from within the discourse of evangelical Protestantism, but he sees himself as in alliance with other thinkers and activists who, if not constituting a "religious left," speak for the emancipatory possibilities of religious and spiritual perspectives. Rabbi Michael Lerner's "network of spiritual progressives" joins Wallis's "Call to Renewal," progressive movements within the Roman Catholic Church, progressive Muslims, and "socially engaged Buddhists" in charting a new set of possibilities for religious voices attempting to contribute to the public discussions about values and policies. Wallis also calls for alliances of religious people with those secular progressives who have overcome inherited socialist or liberal assumptions about the inherent backwardness of religion, as well as "the new denomination" of "spiritual but not religious" folk who represent an ever increasing segment of the American population.
The editor's introduction to this current collection of essays, Mindful Politics, likewise defines "politics" broadly as "all the important ways in which we live together as human beings" (p. 11), and offers this assortment of socially engaged Buddhist texts as contributions to the public discussion about how to live and how to evaluate that collective life. Socially engaged Buddhism as represented by these pieces straddles various boundary lines of perspectives on religion and politics as evoked by Jim Wallis's call for a new set of religio-political dialogues. The Buddhists represent on the one hand another "religious" view of the matters of common concern. Traditional Buddhist teachings on the Four Noble Truths, compassion, and interdependence, as articulated in this volume by some of the major names in contemporary Buddhism (from H.H. the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh to Pema Chodron and Gehlek Rinpoche), offer a set of interpretations of ethics and politics that broaden the discussion in the vein of a more pluralistic awareness of the issues. The question of "God's politics" (the title of an earlier book by Jim Wallis) here becomes (also) "Buddha's politics" as the Dalai Lama offers reflections on the compassion implied by the realization of interdependence as taught in the Buddha's doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda. Thich Nhat Hanh, likewise articulating implications of that doctrine, calls into question the dualistic thinking of "good" versus "evil" implicit in political conflict and militarism. So too, the Siamese Buddhist activist-philosopher Sulak Sivaraksa presents a critique of global capitalism using the framework of the Four [End Page 160] Noble Truths in which the causes of suffering are not just personal states of delusion and greed but the social systems that foster those states collectively, and the path to the overcoming of suffering is thus likewise a collective political transformation as well as a personal spiritual training.
But socially engaged Buddhism can also be seen as a contributor to the "spiritual but not religious" denomination, in that many of these writers offer Buddhist insights without requiring an ideological commitment to the Buddhist tradition. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's vision of an "enlightened society" was a conscious attempt to formulate a set of practices and principles compatible with Trungpa's own Buddhist tradition but standing apart in a secular space open to modern people without specific religious background or allegiance. The practices of mindfulness and thought transformation taught by Trungpa and echoed by a variety of American Buddhist teachers in this book (both his students, such as...