GREEN VALUES, BUDDHIST VALUES

29 08 2008

“If there’s a Green Party, I want to join,” the Dalai Lama has said.  Certainly, not all Greens are Buddhists, but this does lead to the question of how much overlap there is between Buddhist values and Green values.  I recently read David Loy’s Money, Sex, War, Karma–Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, which, without mentioning the Green Party, provides some answers.

Loy examines money, sex and war in  order to understand why they never deliver the satisfaction they promise, and points to what it is we are really looking for when we put our faith in these pillars of modern society.  Why, it’s happiness, isn’t it?  Fulfillment!  And how can anything outside ourselves–a lover, a million dollars, or a warm gun–fill an emptiness that is ultimately, nowhere but within ourselves?  This continual, frustrating search has warped human culture to the breaking point.  Could Buddhism alter society enough to prevent our cultural suicide?

Maybe…but we need to understand its limitations.  First of all, Buddhism is ultimately a personal practice, not a social prescription.  Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, have become strongly identified with politics and ways of ordering society.

In Islam we see institutions such as Sharia, which dictate minute details of personal conduct, and the Caliphate, a religious state ruled over by the spiritual heirs of the Prophet, which continues to haunt the dreams of Mullahs and Islamic politicians alike.

Christianity, by accepting the imprimatur of Constantine and becoming the state religion of the late Roman Empire, likewise identified itself politically with what we now call “the divine right of kings,” a form of political absolutism that allowed for no debate, no democracy, and no non-conformism.  It is small wonder that today, even many “Protestants” whose religions began in rebellion against the overarching hegemony of the Catholic Church demand a state that conforms to their religion by banning or penalizing “sins” such as abortion, homosexuality, non-marital sex, and various forms of consciousness alteration, from alcohol to marihuana and the stronger psychedelics.  That these essentially religious taboos are the regular subject of political debate, or in some cases unquestioningly enforced by the authority of the state, testifies to how deeply our culture is held in the grip of religious fundamentalism, in spite of its secular appearance.

Buddhism’s political track record is not flawless, either, of course, but compared to the major Western religions, its sins have been slight.  Tibetan Buddhism before the Chinese invasion had ossified, presiding over a society that was technically devoted to enlightenment, but whose lamas were all too frequently far more secular than spiritual in their orientation.  Still, Tibet was a small part of the Buddhist world, which, before being cut apart by the sweeping swords of first Islam and then Communism, spread a society based on  meditation and reason from the steppes of central Asia east to Japan, and from Mongolia south through the Indonesian archipelago.  While there were militaries in all these lands, there were also monasteries, and the potent call of a religion that not only claimed that material success is just an illusion, but that offered people tools and techniques to discover this for themselves.  By contrast, Christianity and Islam made sheep of people, offering them only submission to the authority of the church as a way out of the misery of daily life.

This, I think, is where Buddhism and the Green Party begin to intersect.  They share a commitment to personal empowerment, to individual liberation as the foundation stone of a liberated society.  What individual liberation means, as David Loy points out, is freedom from what Buddhism terms “the three poisons:” greed/selfishness, anger/separation, and ignorance–which happen to be the building blocks of consumer society.

These poisons are institutionalized in our economy, our nationalism and military, and our so-called news media, and it is only when we free ourselves from the various spells they cast that we are capable of creating a saner way of life.  Loy takes pains to point out that Buddhism does not describe that way of life, but rather trusts liberated individuals to create a society that is appropriate for them:

We should hesitate before deriving any particular economic or political system from the various teachings of Buddhism…..Buddhism is really about awakening and liberating our awareness, rather than prescribing new institutional structures for that awareness.  We cannot pre-determine what awakened awareness should or  will decide when applied to the problem of social dukkha (suffering).  There is no magic formula to be invoked.  That no one else has such a formula either, so far as I can see, means that solutions to our collective dukkha cannot be derived from any ideology.  They must be worked out together. (p. 141)

This, of course, is completely in line with the first two of the Green Party’s “Ten Key Values,” which are grassroots democracy and social justice.  Loy sees Buddhism not as a separate movement, but more as a spice for existing movements that can flavor them with the integrity that comes from personal spiritual practice, commitment to nonviolence, a sense that we are all in this together, and awareness of impermanence and emptiness, which are not as esoteric as they may sound–they amount to the wisdom that everything will change, sooner or later, because nothing has any permanent existence.

Impermanence means that no problem is intractable since it is part of larger processes that are constantly evolving, whether or not we notice.  My generation grew up during a Cold War that would never end, until suddenly it did.  Apartheid in South Africa seemed inflexible and implacable, but below the surface tectonic plates were gradually shifting and one day that political system collapsed.  These characteristics are not always encouraging:  things can slowly worsen too, and solutions as well as problems are impermanent.  It depends on us to understand how things are changing and how to respond to those changes.

That highlights two other principles connected with impermanence and nonsubstantiality:  non-dogmatism and upaya, “skillful means.”  Shakyamuni Buddha’s own flexibility and Buddhism’s lack of dependence upon any fixed ideology implies the pragmatism of praxis.  We build whatever raft will work to ferry us to the other shore, and once there we don’t carry it around on our backs.  Nonattachment allows for the openness and receptivity which awaken upaya:  imaginative solutions that leap outside the ruts our minds usually circle in.(pps. 145-6)

At the bottom of the web page describing the Green Party’s ten key values is a disclaimer:

There is no authoritative version of the Ten Key Values of the Greens.  The Ten Key Values are guiding principles that are adapted and defined to fit each state and local chapter.

Non-dogmatism, then, lies at the heart of both Buddhism and the Green Party, but I think there is an important difference between the two:  it is possible to be an intellectual Green who participates in the party but does not actually live the values, but in order to be a Buddhist one must actually practice what Buddhism offers.  However, just as it is possible to practice Hatha Yoga without being a formal, observant Hindu, so the mental disciplines (which are often referred to as “yogas”) of meditation and attention that are at the core of Buddhism can be practiced without formally becoming a Buddhist.  Of course, these yogas will be more effective in a more formal context, but there is plenty of benefit to be derived from “generic” meditation, just as spending fifteen minutes a day doing hatha yoga asanas is valuable whether or not one dedicates them to Shiva or Krishna.

The Green Party has been searching for the key that will take it from its current marginal status into the realm of being a serious contender in the American political arena.  I would humbly submit that if every Green were to take his or her personal transformation as seriously as the social and political transformation whose necessity we all see, our power would be magnified and unimaginable possibilities would open up.

I could be wrong; perhaps nothing can pull America back over the brink; and I certainly have no way to make anybody else change their life.  But I do strongly suggest that anyone who cares deeply about the fate of America will benefit from reading David Loy’s little bookMoney Sex War Karma, and following his simple advice.  I don’t know of any better idea.

music:  Bruce Cockburn, “The Gift

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