Buddhism and Liberalism Are Mutually Reinforcing
The faith’s emphasis on accepting impermanence offers an ethical framework for a dynamic, open society
Today, we continue our series on Liberalism & Religion with a fascinating essay on Buddhism by Aaron Ross Powell, the host of ReImagining Liberty and The UnPopulist’s Zooming In podcast.
In the previous essay on Protestantism, Rachel Ferguson noted that the idea that grounds liberalism is that every person has equal worth and that needs to be politically recognized. But, she maintained, that liberalism was informed by Protestantism, the religion that fully embraced the social and political implications of the Biblical notion that each individual, bestowed with intellect and will, is made in the image of God. It is no coincidence, therefore, that many of the great thinkers in the classical liberal tradition—John Locke, Adam Smith, and even Immanuel Kant—had Protestant roots.
But given that the fundamental premise guiding this series is that all faiths have a liberal core, Ferguson concluded her essay by noting that she looked forward to seeing how “non-Judeo-Christian traditions ground the inherent dignity and value of the human individual.”
Aaron, who embraced Buddhism over a decade ago, takes a stab at answering that question. His account does indeed reveal that the metaphysical starting points of Buddhism, on the one hand, and Christianity/Protestantism, on the other, are very different—the impermanence of human life in the case of Buddhism and the fallenness of human life in the case of Christianity. However, Buddhism puts at the heart of its project, arguably even more than Christianity, the ending of human suffering. And to accomplish that, he notes, Buddhism counsels each individual to hold every other “harmless” regardless of the life projects each of us chooses—and the change these choices inevitably bring to our world. The ethical system this yields, notes Aaron, maps on strikingly well with the “interpersonal ethics of liberalism.”
It is a very Eastern perspective and very different from Western traditions. And precisely for that reason, Aaron’s cogent and deeply felt essay is a must read.
The Buddha, a Nepalese contemporary of the pre-Socratic Greeks, elaborated a philosophy for ending our suffering by changing our perspective on ourselves and our world through a process of mental training, ethical development, and introspection. “[W]hat I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering,” he says in one of his early discourses. Liberalism, attributed to European thinkers, is a couple thousand years younger. It is focused on defending the idea that the proper role of government is protecting individual freedoms—and developing institutions necessary to perform that role. Buddhism and liberalism seem to have little to do with each other and, from the perspective of intellectual history, that’s true. Buddhist countries are not liberal countries in our modern taxonomy, and Buddhist philosophers—including the Buddha himself—tended to give rather less attention to political questions than their Western peers.
But I am a liberal, and I am also a Buddhist, and while my liberalism and my Buddhism arrived independently of each other, I’ve come over the years to recognize a deep connection between them, both in perspective and values, and now see them as not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing.
The two most important points of intersection, in my mind, are the Buddhist ideas of harmlessness and impermanence, which are themselves linked in the broader Buddhist pursuit of a very particular kind of happiness. That Siddhattha Gotama (“Siddhartha Gautama” in Sanskrit), who we now call the Buddha (“enlightened one”), existed is an historical fact. But like so many founders of eventual religious movements, his biography grew in the telling, and, today, most of what Buddhist texts tell of his life is instead legend. Still, it’s insightful legend.
As the story goes, he grew up a prince, pampered by his royal parents and sheltered from the world’s many kinds of suffering. But while out exploring the city as a young man, he eventually came across an aged person, an ill person, and a corpse, thus learning about the inevitable presence of old age, sickness, and death—and not just in the world, but for himself, as well, and for all the things he took to be permanent sources of happiness. This set him on a quest to find a happiness that was deathless, “in other words, a happiness that wouldn’t end, a happiness that didn’t require struggling with others, a happiness that caused no one any harm,” as the scholar-monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it in his short introduction to Buddhism. This was an act of radical self-authorship, an intentional breaking from the traditions and institutions of his time to seek out truth and happiness through his own inquiry.
After testing the various spiritual and ascetic schools of the day with near superhuman commitment and at great cost to his own well-being, Gotama discovered what Buddhists refer to as the Four Noble Truths. This itself is a lesson in liberalism, for liberals frequently emphasize the benefits of enabling what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.” Gotama took a radical path, and taught his newfound wisdom to a handful of ascetics, then followers, then monks, and then, through his words, to billions over thousands of years.
Finding the Right Path
The first of the Four Noble Truths is the recognition that life contains suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. The second locates the cause of suffering in craving and attachment, which, in turn, is rooted in ignorance about the nature of ourselves and our world. The third truth maintains that the cessation of suffering is possible by eliminating these cravings. The fourth is what’s called the Eightfold Path, a means of achieving that cessation by cultivating ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. Its eight factors are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This discovery led to his enlightenment, and so the honorific “Buddha.” Whatever else Buddhism is—and it’s quite a lot, spread across many distinct traditions, and millennia of philosophical evolution—at its core it is an understanding of what suffering is, and how to end it in a way that is lasting and doesn’t depend upon harming others.
Buddhists believe setting out on the path begins by committing to five precepts of ethical conduct. These rules (which are part of the Eightfold Path’s right action) put an end to harming others by refraining from (1) physically harming or killing, (2) stealing or “taking what is not freely given,” (3) harmful sexual or sensual conduct, (4) false and otherwise harmful speech, (5) and the use of intoxicants that cause heedlessness and thus lead us to violate the other four precepts. Living the precepts isn’t the whole of Buddhism, but if you can’t live the precepts, you will be unable to cultivate the wisdom, ethics, and concentration that the Eightfold Path entails. This is, on its surface, a sort of external harmlessness. Don’t harm others, and here are five common ways we do that, so knock them off. But for Buddhists, this outward harmlessness is a path to the ultimate goal of inward happiness by way of dropping those mental formations (beliefs, perspectives, values, intentions) that are causing us harm, causing us to suffer, and so in their cessation bring a lasting, “deathless” contentment.
It’s striking, looking over this list, how well it maps on to the basic interpersonal ethics of liberalism. We mustn’t hit each other, we mustn’t steal from each other, we mustn’t seek to harm each other.
To move from personal ethics to politics, we should establish governing institutions that will not only protect us from those who can’t follow these rules but also make us whole when such protections inevitably prove imperfect. One early Buddhist text, the Aggaññasutta, sets out something that looks an awful lot like a proto social contract theory of state authority grounded in the consent of the governed: “Oh, how wicked things have appeared among beings, in that stealing is found, and blaming and lying and the taking up of rods! Why don’t we elect one being who would rightly accuse those who deserve it, blame those who deserve it, and expel those who deserve it?” Another, the Cakkavattisutta, tells us that a good ruler “wields power only in a principled manner,” in a way consistent with Buddhist ethical principles. Our institutions should be formed through consent of the people, while applying the state’s rules equally, including to its rulers.
It is easy to square these precepts with liberalism—and difficult to reconcile them with the weaponization of populist fervor against outgroups. Buddhism is fundamentally incompatible with illiberal, authoritarian repression. Of course, not everyone who claims to hold to a set of principles lives them in practice, as the horrible violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist Myanmar makes appallingly clear.
But just refraining from killing, stealing, and so on is not enough to achieve lasting happiness in a Buddhist sense, any more than achieving lasting health comes from merely refraining from an unhealthy diet. Rather, the precepts help prepare our minds for the hard work of developing and internalizing an understanding of impermanence and “conditioned arising,” which is what will ultimately bring our suffering to an end. This is hard work because Buddhist philosophy is clear that merely understanding principles at an intellectual level isn’t enough to achieve an end to suffering. We have to train our minds to actually view the world and ourselves through that perspective. This is the mental discipline and wisdom mentioned above as goals of the Eightfold Path. That training takes the form of meditative practices of focusing the mind, calming it, and then in that more aware state turning inward to experience insights about ourselves.
The Karmic Chameleon
Another important concept in relating Buddhism to liberalism is karma. You’ve probably heard of it, and you probably misunderstand it, at least in a Buddhist sense. Buddhists do not believe in an all-powerful god who establishes and enforces a cosmic scale of justice, nor do they believe in a universe with such a cosmic scale. Rather, karma is simply the Sanskrit word for “action,” and in the Buddhist context, it is a theory of cause and effect. The central claim as this relates to suffering is “conditioned arising,” or the idea that all phenomena arise in interdependence with a multitude of conditions, which are themselves caused, and themselves causes of future conditions. Because all phenomena are thus conditional upon these causes, nothing exists independently. Causes come and go, and so that which they cause does as well. Thus impermanence. Everything in the physical and mental realms is subject to change and cannot maintain a permanent state. Our bodies, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are in a constant state of flux. Buddhists argue that we can discover the truth of this not just through philosophical reasoning, but through meditative introspection. Learning to watch your thoughts and observe their nature leads to the insight that there is no fixed and unified “self” within you. By recognizing impermanence, we can free ourselves of clinging and grasping, and find a lasting happiness and contentment.
It is that insight that Buddhism brings to the table. Not impermanence itself—after all, over in Greece, Heraclitus, pointed out that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”—but an understanding of the relationship between impermanence and suffering. We suffer precisely because we refuse to accept the truth of impermanence. We imagine ourselves to be somehow permanent, waving away or ignoring the inevitability of our own aging, sickness, and death, or by imagining that our true essence is an immaterial and immortal soul that will carry on as us, even when our bodies have turned to dust. We imagine the same of the people in our lives, our possessions, our status, our place in society, and the characteristics of the world as we prefer them. We cling to—or grasp, or crave—phenomena that will always slip away from us, and then gnash our teeth when they do.
The Permanence of Impermanence
This disconnect between how we (want to) imagine the world to be, and how it really is, causes our suffering, though a better translation of the Pali word (“dukkha”) is stress, dissatisfaction, or dis-ease. (The scholar and translator Bhikkhu Analayo traces the term’s etymology to “standing badly,” which “conveys nuances of ‘uneasiness’ or of being ‘uncomfortable.’”) We feel dukkha because we want and act as if reality were different than it really is, and that disconnect interferes with our ability to be happy. The Buddha is not saying we should just give up, accept what we have, and never strive to make the world better. Nor is this an emotionless detachment. The early texts are full of joy and humor and pleasure-taking. Rather, it is a recognition that stress and unease aren’t features of the world, but features of our mental relationship to it.
In the Sallasutta, the Buddha tells us that when an untrained person, someone who doesn’t understand the nature of suffering, “is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.” If I skin my knee, that is inevitably painful, and I should put disinfectant and a bandage on it to prevent the future pain of infection, but my suffering is made worse, not better, if I also dwell upon the fact that I have skinned my knee and indulge in anger towards the rock that tripped me or the sidewalk that abraded me. If this is true of the response to the pain of a skinned knee, it is also true of the “pain” of inevitable change as dependent origination does its relentless work.
Here, then, is liberalism. Liberals disagree among themselves about the finer details of what liberalism is and what it entails, but I’ve come to see it as (1) a recognition of the high value of individual liberty that is (2) grounded in an appreciation of the equal moral worth and right to self-authorship of all, and (3) sees value in the social diversity and dynamism that (1) and (2) inevitably unleash and encourage. If you have an aversion to social diversity and dynamism or change, you necessarily have an aversion to liberalism itself. If you insist on permanence within the social, cultural, and economic spheres, you are insisting that we abandon liberalism.
Buddhism tells us that permanence is impossible, and that impermanence is the basic nature of ourselves and our world. It provides an ethical framework in which we should not harm each other, and where all of us are interconnected equals in a dynamic world. It gives us a way to recognize that every “traditional” hierarchy is just a contingent result of causes that, being the result of conditioned arising, are subject to change. Taken together, this forms the moral core of liberalism.
Illiberalism is wrong because it denies dynamism in a world that is, by its very nature, dynamic. To be socially conservative instead of liberal—to reject (3) above—and to then demand that state power be brought to bear against those whose diversity offends you, is to reject the core, and I believe correct, Buddhist insight about the causes of suffering.
Social conservatism is craving and clinging to an imaginary perfect state of affairs, whether historical and traditional, or derived from daydreams about a fictitious, halcyon past. Illiberalism isn’t always backwards looking, however. It can also manifest as utopian planning and social engineering, the belief that with the right application of force by the right people, we can remake humanity into something better. Trying to plan society, whether along religious or traditionalist or utopian (or even Buddhist) lines, is craving and clinging as well, an attempt to replace dynamism with engineered permanence. If the Buddha is correct, as I believe he is, that suffering arises from those very feelings of craving and clinging, which themselves arise from a failure to come to terms with impermanence, then illiberalism doesn’t just harm the people whose freedoms get taken away, but harms the illiberal as well.
I am a Buddhist because the Buddha’s assessment of, and solution to, our suffering, and his path to lasting happiness, is, I’m convinced, the right one. His understanding of the nature of ourselves and our world is accurate. I am a liberal because I value your right to lead your life, peacefully and harmlessly, as much as I value my own, and because I see the happiness you gain in doing so as a constitutive element of my own peaceful and harmless happiness.
If Buddhism is right, then liberalism is good.
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