Talk given in California 10/05, Vancouver 11/05, New York 1/06, and Bellingham 3/06
The last months of the Buddha's life must have been a little sad. If you read between the lines in the Parinirvana Sutta you get the impression that the Buddha, well into his eighties, is tired and weary, worn down by life's difficulties. He says to Ananda, "Just like an old cart that is in such need of repair that is must be strapped together with straps just to keep it from falling apart, so is my body strapped together. The only time my body feels pleasant," he went on, " is when I am in deep concentration states." He had stomach trouble, and back trouble, and still he led the rigorous outdoor life of a wandering ascetic. Recently he'd had word that Sariputra, one of his leading disciples, whom, I'm sure, he'd counted on as a leader for the sangha after his death, had died, and only a week or so later Maudgalyana, another skillful and beloved early disciple also passed away.
When the Buddha was young, large cities and empires were beginning to form on the great plains of India, but there were still small republics, more or less democratically run. The Shakyan republic, where the Buddha grew up, was one of them. Though the Buddha's father is described in legend as a noble king (and isn't it interesting to note that in the West we have Jesus, a destitute child who becomes king of heaven through transcendent suffering, while Asian legend gives us the Buddha, born a king, who becomes a penniless wandering mendicant through peaceful enlightenment), historians agree that he was much more likely the elected head man of a small republic, whose form of government called for consensual decisions made my small councils of elders. By the end of Buddha's life these small republics were beginning to be overrun by the great empires. A short while before the Buddha's death, in fact, the Shakya clan was massacred by the army of the King of Kosala, and Kapilavastu, the Buddha's birthplace and the capital of the realm, was razed to the ground. King Bimbasara of Magadha, another powerful but fair-minded sovereign, and a close student of the Buddha, had recently been killed by his own son, the usurper Ajatasattu, a ruthless and aggressive ruler. The Buddha never condemned or opposed Ajatasattu for his crimes, but neither did he befriend him. It was the custom in those days for kings to consult with holy men for advice and blessings when they were about to carry out important military operations. When Ajatasattu sent a representative to the Buddha to ask whether he could expect success in an impending invasion, the Buddha responded with a teaching about karma: violence brings violence, peace brings peace, this is the way of the world. And that was all he said.
So at the end of the Buddha's life it is fair to say that the world as he knew it, his personal world as well as the political world, appeared to be in a sorry state. Certainly the Buddha, in his advanced age, with decrepit health, must have felt this acutely. For from the beginning it had never been Buddha's intention to leave the world behind, to set up the sangha as an alternative independent world. Certainly the Buddha could see the world's inherent difficulty and corruption, and he saw that some removal from the world was necessary for the spiritual development he sought. But his vision of spiritual practice included a constant connection between monastics and the world, and members of his monastic sangha always remained close to villages and towns, camping typically on the outskirts of settlement, so that they could beg for their food and in return share teachings with the townsfolk. Times spent in caves or mountains far from ordinary people were rare. The interaction of monastics with the world, for the mutual benefit of both, was essential to the Buddha's original vision of practice. So I think the Buddha was very much connected to the world, cared deeply about it, and must have felt, as we feel today, deep sorrow when things looked dark.
In light of this, it's interesting to consider the Buddha's political ideals, his recommendations for what we might call the good society. And it's striking that he had no recommendations. There is no term in Buddhism, as far as I know, that corresponds to out Western concept of "justice." The Buddha had no blueprint for a peaceful or a fair society, nor did he advocate or practice any form of what we would call political activity. The Buddha seemed to feel that all political activity is inherently pernicious, because politics has to do with, on the one hand, power, and on the other with grand abstractions like freedom, democracy, justice. Following a path of conduct based on power and on abstract principles, the Buddha must have felt, would always lead to trouble. Remember, the Buddha's religious quest began with the profound recognition that all begins suffer and all beings require peace and healing for their suffering - not only some social classes, some races, some genders, but all classes, races, and genders suffer, all beings without exception suffer. Beginning with this recognition, the Buddha then personalized it: he saw that he himself suffered (although he was a ruler's son) and that as a suffering being he was in alignment with all beings who suffer just as he did. And he sought an end to this suffering for himself and others. So it's not that the Buddha was apolitical or politically naïve; rather we might say that he was politically profound. For he saw that the effort to segregate politics from the spiritual life - from the constant cultivation of the vision that we all suffer together, no matter what social class or what party or interest group we belong to - was doomed to failure for it would inevitably create more suffering than it alleviated. And he saw too that those who sought political power for personal advantage at the expense of others would themselves in the long run suffering. For the Buddha there was no spiritual practice without connection to others, and so the there was a constant necessity for action inspired by kindness. You might say then that for the Buddha every moment was a political moment, a moment in which we are called on to articulate our compassionate relationship to others.
Although he never spoke about it directly, it seems clear that the Buddha did not favor large monolithic political organizations. Like most of us, he had a fondness for what he knew in his childhood - small face to face communities in which decisions were made through a process of dialog. Such communities are not exactly democratic, as we would understand the term. Democracy as we know involves debate, contending interests, compromise, and majority rule. Democracy can therefore easily become mediocracy, and is subject to manipulation, and the tyranny of the majority over the minority. We have seen all of this in our own American experiment with democracy. We can get a glimpse of the Buddha's preferences in political arrangements through examining the way he chose to organize the sangha. The early Buddhist sangha was a consensual community in which every participant cultivated positive feelings for and adhered to respectful modes of conduct toward every other participant. These inner and outer practices were for the purpose of making deep communication and dialog possible. When it came to distinctions between individuals, seniority was valued over persuasive power, intelligence, and social standing. In the early Buddhist sangha, even while the Buddha was still alive, decisions were made in council. While the Buddha's word was always respected, it was not necessarily always law. The Buddha believed that through deep human concern and patient dialog consensual decisions would usually be reached, and when there were serious and unbridgeable conflicts, individuals and groups were free to go off on their own to form new communities, as happened.
Probably the most important aspect of the Buddha's political vision, though, was his view of the self, the person, which is, after all, the most basic of all political units.
In a monolithic totalitarian state, like the fascist or communist states of the 20th Century, or the kingdoms and empires of the Buddha's day, the individual is not important. The state is important, either in and of itself, or because, the theory goes, it is the state and only the state that is able to provide for the social and spiritual needs of individuals. If in the course of the state's carrying out this mission some individuals are harmed, deprived of their rights or even their lives, this is simply the unfortunate cost of a system that will provide the greatest good for the greatest number. In the modern liberal democracy, the individual not the state is at the center of the political universe. There's a sort of mystical faith that if individuals are left alone to pursue their own - usually conceived of as material - interests, then somehow all will be well, and the state ought to minimize interference with this, or to facilitate it with the lightest possible touch. There are of course many possible variations between these two extreme positions, but it does seem as if this great question of the state versus the individual, and the purpose and power of the state in relation to the individual, is the great question that has driven the political struggles of the last few centuries, and drives them still. This means that when we are arguing about politics we are really arguing about what a person is, and how a person ought best to articulate his or her personhood in society.
The Buddha agreed with neither of these extreme positions. Nor did he seek a balance between them. His view of what a person is was radically different from the views that underlie both poles of this political dichotomy. The Buddha could see that ceding individual rights to the state was a recipe for tragedy. But he also saw that the unbridled, or even the regulated, pursuit of individual needs and wants and personal satisfactions would lead to alienation and unhappiness for everyone - not just those at the bottom of the social ladder, but everyone. Looking at it this way, you see that the Buddha's extensive teachings about the nature of the self are not only psychological and philosophical; they are also deeply political.
The Buddha taught that the self - as we understand it, as we have been taught to regard it, as we are deeply conditioned to live it - is a monstrous fiction. He taught that the notion of the self as a separate isolated individual whose needs and wants oppose the needs and wants of others in a zero sum game is pernicious and inaccurate. In reality, the self is a constant and ever-shifting point of meeting. It's the endless transformation or re-creation of consciousness as consciousness constantly meets and is opened up by contact with the world around it in each succeeding moment. It's interesting that in all languages we have the word "I." But when I say "I" referring to myself and you say "I" referring to yourself, we use the same word. This acknowledges that my "I" and your "I" and the "I" of anyone who is a conscious subjective experiential flow is exactly the same. In other words, the experience of being a subject, of being a self, of being an "I," is essentially the same for every human being who speaks a language. It is a shared experience.
And this is why at the deepest level my own personal satisfaction does not satisfy me. No matter how much I pursue and succeed in obtaining personal satisfaction, I will never be satisfied. The only thing that can really satisfy me is to experience my life at its most fundamental level, viscerally, intellectually, and with my whole heart, body and soul. This is to recognize that my "I" and your "I" are the same "I" and that it is only my open connection to time, space, and love, on a moment to moment basis, that will satisfy me - that and only that. And when I see that as my life, and live my life on this basis, then there is no politics, or, rather, there is nothing but politics. Every breath, every moment of connected consciousness, brings me to the good. And naturally I will find my own way to actions that will, eventually, build a better world.
I am sure that the Buddha had unshakable faith in this. Despite the weariness of his body and all the bad news of the day, he had confidence that the sangha would continue as a force for good in the world. And he had faith that the teachings - in all the myriad forms, Buddhist and non Buddhist, in which they appear - would eventually bring forth a humane world.
It is interesting to consider the Buddha's plan for succession and organization of the sangha after his death. The Buddha never made any rules for the sangha on principle. Always, without ever taking his eye off the efficacy of teachings for achieving the goal of peaceful liberation, he tried to make rules that fit the conditions of the moment. At the end of the Buddha's life Ananda pressed him to think about arrangements for the sangha in the future. This is the Buddha's somewhat testy reply:
"What does the Order of monks expect of me? I have taught Dharma making no distinction of inner and outer … If there is anyone who thinks 'I shall take charge of the Order' or 'the Order is under my leadership' such a person would have to make arrangements about the Order. But I do not think 'I will lead the order' or 'the Order looks up to me.' When then should I determine something about the Order?"
Think how astonishing this response is. After creating the sangha and leading it continuously for forty five years the Buddha here denies that he ever led anything or that it is up to him to think about the future. I do not think the Buddha was being disingenuous or abrogating his responsibility. I think rather that he knew very well that the idea of power is based on based on the idea of a separate autonomous individual - and that both are abstractions. Power is an abstraction. A concept on which we base far too much of our conduct. In reality there's no power, only meeting, the transformation of consciousness, moment after moment.
The point of our meditation practice, the point of all spiritual endeavor, is to understand this for ourselves, to settle into our actual lives, beyond abstractions, so that we will come to know who we really are and experience our lives as they truly are. Sensations come and go, thoughts and feelings come and go. The breath comes and goes. Moments fly by. The sun rises, sets, and darkness comes. Every moment is a moment of meeting. And this is why every moment is a good moment, a beautiful moment, even if it brings tears and anguish.
© 2006, Norman Fischer