I would like to say something based on a Buddhism discussion yesterday. This is an extremely long and complex topic. I don’t expect I can explain everything clearly here. I will try to make this article short and avoid too many details.
First we need to clarify the meaning of politics. Generally speaking, I guess there are two ways people usually interpret this word. On the broader sense, politics would mean making social changes. On the narrower sense, politics would mean anything dealing with state/government. For making social change, of course, Buddhism is to make social change. Especially for Mahayana practitioners, we wow to save all sentient beings before saving ourselves. In Mahayana’s view, that is the way of practice. Doing activities is at the very center of Mahayana practice. We say doing activity is the only truth. I don’t want to go into Hinayana’s view here. I will leave that to another post. Here I just want to mention that there are a lot of Hinayana schools actually engage themselves a lot in the social changes (such as Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka ). Mahayana practitioners also need to have the ease of putting it down sometimes. After all, if the world never changes, why should you care so much about the human being?
As for dealing with state/government, it is a very complex topic. If Buddha said No Politics, the politics here, in my understanding, means no dealing with state/government. If so, Buddha saying No Politics definitely reflected his deep insight into the nature of state/government. Without going into too deep into this, here just let me say that in the future there will be probably no government/state and country. If so, state/government is definitely not something essential.
As regarding the view that Buddhism is an eastern religion and the same as other eastern religions Buddhism doesn’t have much concern of social change, I don’t quite agree with such a statement. If you judge by majority, maybe it is true. The majority of Buddhism schools in the east may have shunned away from social change in the history. But there is another standard to make judgment. if you judge by best quality, I mean judge by the very few Buddhism schools/masters who really understand Buddhism, then such a statement is not true. In the history of Buddhism in the east, I feel quite confident to say that (real) Buddhism has been trying its best to make social changes, although it was very hard. Without systemic change and the timing, what the (true) Buddhism can work with is very limited. This might be something we can look into from the view of western contribution. But that is a big topic. So I won’t go into here. It is however safe for me to say this: although Buddhism always tries to adapt to local culture, the profoundness of Buddhism always go beyond local culture. Otherwise, it is not complete emptiness.
As for the discussion of why a lot of (probably the majority of Buddhist practitioners, even in the west) are not very interested in social changes (dealing with state/government would be another story), during the discussion, I added one reason. A lot of people came to meditation for the purpose of reducing personal suffering, not to be bothered by many nosies and troubles of life. That is why a lot of people came to meditation. People grow up conditioned by society and culture. Throughout the history, the system has always being trying to tell systemic lies and use systemic forces to turn originally free human being into passive, dependent slaves and labors. People occupied by school and TV, dominated by corporate media, haven’t learned anything about the outside world. They don’t know much about society, culture, and history. They are unable to connect the dots. How can we expect them to be interested in making social changes? Making social changes is a natural thing when your ability grows and you become more able to interact with society and culture.
I would agree that if Al Gore really became president in the year 2000, the response and handling of 911 would be quite different from the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration is just way too horrible. But if we compare this difference to the difference we can make at the grassroots level, then different political candidates don’t really make too much difference. Even the political candidate intends to do something good, the system at the top can only allow very little change. Michael Gravel, who advocates abolishing military (or just against military draft and Military Industry Complex?) and income tax, has no hope to be really elected president. NBC even wanted to bar him from the presidential debate.
But if we view human history as a history of how human being organize together, then in our time we will see more and more experimentation of a very wide range of various form of social organizations, with the aid of Internet and WWW technologies. Especially in term of freeing people from systemic lies, we will have a chance to turn the whole society into a comprehensive learning environment so we can return the true face of learning to people. I am working very hard in these efforts. I need a lot of help. So you will be very welcome to join me in these efforts to change the world in a fundamental and peaceful way. We human being are really at the door step of a very revolutionary change in our entire human history. Actually the process has already started. And it is very possible that we can accomplish this within a few years.
If we don’t have Self, then it won’t be a question why we should or shouldn’t engage in making social change. Everyone is yourself. How can you be blind to other people’s suffering?