Left Wing Buddha, Right Wing Buddha

I’d guess that if you asked most American Zen teachers if the Buddha was a Democrat or a Republican, the majority would answer that the dharma transcends politics. And they would be correct. But I believe they’d secretly be thinking that the Buddha was a card carrying liberal. I personally don’t know how you can read about the Buddha and not think he was a Libertarian. “Be a lamp unto yourself” could be the most libertarian statement of any major religion.  

My Buddhist friend (everyone should have one) and I were discussing this subject. He thinks most people see the dharma through their particular political lens. Me, I’m a little more cynical. I think that statement is too passive. I think people actively bring their politics into the dharma. I wasn’t alive when the hippies in the Northeast and California started converting en masse, but it set up the American Zen we see today. Well, that and all the New York psychoanalysts that also came to it. But that’s a post for another time.  

This is not a uniquely American Zen problem. Last weekend, I attended a local interfaith event for Pride Month where the themes were “unlearn fear and hate” and “building bridges.” Our mayor, who is openly gay, was there. This event was organized by a local Catholic parishioner and many clergy from the Big Three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) attended. My Zen teacher joined the group last year. The main speaker was a local Rabbi whom I’ve heard speak many times. I’ve also had personal conversations with him and he’s a very charismatic guy with a wonderful sense of humor. His speech started off great, talking about how important it is to include everyone, regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. He mixed in some Jewish sayings with some Jewish humor. And then, bam! Out of nowhere he started deriding the current President, his cabinet members and the people who voted for him. I was dumbstruck. An event dedicated to building bridges and this is how he honors that theme?  

There are better ways to talk about inclusion. I don’t know why this is so hard for our American religious leaders to understand. And to our Zen leaders, once again, I ask you where the political ramblings of Dogen, Rinzai, Bodhidharma, and the Buddha are in the historical record? If the ancestors stayed out of politics, why do we as a sangha feel we need to be involved?  


6 thoughts on “Left Wing Buddha, Right Wing Buddha”

  1. He was a Rabbi. I’m sure the similarities between the current president and Hitler are not lost on him. Racist, authoritarian nationalists accuse liberals of being of being wimps — except when they stand up to them, then it’s not allowed.

    BTW there’s a Theravada Buddhist sutta that praises “liberality.” If I had the time I’d look for it. You need to delve a little deeper into Buddhism.

    1. Who was a Rabbi?

      It’s not that liberals stand up for themselves that upsets the right, it’s HOW they do it. Usually with destruction of property.

      I’ll see if I can find that sutta. But again, I think that most American Zen Buddhists today would think the Buddha was a liberal.

  2. The “local Rabbi”you mentioned in your post.

    Buddhism in the past was not nearly as apolitical as you would have it. Historically, until recently, Buddhists have known only authoritarian, absolute rulers and, starting with the Buddha, they’ve had to suck up to those rulers in order for the religion to survive. Liberal democracy was not an alternative.

    Dogen had to move his monastery twice due to politics. Many Buddhist leaders in China and Japan were deeply involved in court politics and intrigues. In the second world war Zen Buddhists leaders actively supported the militaristic and nationalistic Japanese government bent on attacking other countries. It’s only recently, as it found adherents in the West, that Buddhism has become liberal politically.

    However, if you delve more deeply into Buddhism, and particularly Zen, at heart it is radically egalitarian and compassionate — but like most religions it has not always lived up to its own ideals. Maybe it’s time it did.

  3. Sorry, brain fart. I think the Rabbi could have been much more inclusive in his message.

    Of course Buddhism has had to be weary of the politics of the country, state, municipality it was located in. But I think you are proving my point. Even though most Teachers throughout its history have had to defer to political leaders of the time, they STILL didn’t show it in their teaching and writing, WWII Japan the exception. Dogen’s move was due to competing sects, not an Emperor who forced his move, correct? Internal strife and intrigue is different than stating than openly advocating for abortion or gay marriage to your Sangha.

    1. My understanding is that Dogen’s sangha was independent of imperial patronage, which is why he had go to a remote area where he wouldn’t be hassled. In those days there was not a lot of freedom to speak out against the government — as there is in our present, somewhat fragile political system.

      Right wing Christians are extremely active in politics, to the point where I suspect they would like to turn Christianity into a state religion with no freedom to be otherwise. If other religions such as Buddhism don’t speak up they could lose that right.

  4. From what I have seen from Right Wing Christians, politically they only care about abortion and gay marriage. A lot of what used to be considered the Right religiously are softening on gay marriage. And it’s mainly the Baptists that are extremely anti-abortion. So now the Left thinks they need their own Left Wing religious representation (which they have always had here in Zen).


    Are two wrongs going to make a right? No pun intended. I’m afraid this won’t lead to more dialogue, just more entrenchment of current views.

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