With a day left before one of the most contentious elections in recent history, many are finding their lives consumed by political news.
One Cal Poly professor with a new book on Buddhism and politics says we may be setting ourselves up for unnecessary distress.
Political science professor Matthew J. Moore’s first book, “Buddhism and Political Theory,” was the focus of discussion for the Robert E. Kennedy Library’s Author Series on Nov 4. The book came out last April and examines the intersections between Buddhism and political theory — two fields which are often assumed to be disparate, or even at conflict with each other.
Not so, Moore says. But what accounts for this perceived incompatibility between Buddhism and politics?
“I think there’s a popular conception that gets summed up in a comment by the sociologist Max Weber, who says that Buddhism is anti-political, only concerned with soteriology [saving your own soul] and that nothing else matters,” Moore said. “But what I’ve tried to show in the book is that’s actually really mistaken.”
Buddhism is often taken for anarchist thought. In his book, Moore challenges this popular belief and introduces the idea of limited citizenship, one of the grounding political principles referenced in Buddhist texts. Limited citizenship means performing the minimum duties to engage with the political system, i.e. voting, jury duty, paying taxes, but not being focused on politics 24/7.
In other words, being a citizen means fulfilling the duties of citizenship, but not taking part in the babble.
According to a data visualization from the editors at The Atlantic, Donald Trump has been mentioned 25, 203 times on TV news in just one week.
Insulation from constant noise was what initially brought Moore to Buddhism.
“I think most people who come to Buddhism or meditation as adults do so out of some kind of crisis in their lives,” Moore said. “About 10 or 11 years ago, I just had an extremely busy period of my life that was overwhelming and thought, ‘I need to learn some way to cope with this.’”
He started with “Meditation for Dummies,” and found it supplied him with an inimitable respite from a chaotic world. He started sitting with a Buddhist meditation group in Atascadero once a week.
But after some time, a certain curiosity started to emerge for Moore: what, if anything, did Buddhists say about politics?
Given his background in political theory, this question was particularly compelling. Turns out they said a whole lot, but most wasn’t in plain view.
After many years as both an academic and a meditator, Moore came to better understand what the Buddhists actually said about politics. Low and behold, politics is needed, but it’s not everything. There’s a lot of it we can’t control.
Cal Poly Author Series Coordinator Brett Bodemer chose Moore’s book for the lecture series because of its cultural and political relevance. He said it approaches the current political situation from a perspective most don’t think about.
“Politics has a certain place in our lives, but that’s not universal by any stretch of the imagination,” Bodemer said. “So as we’re days away from the election, it might be good to ask ourselves, ‘Are we taking the right approach?’”
Professor Joseph Lynch led the Author Series panel. Lynch, who has an extensive background in Buddhism, Daoism and martial arts, says the book goes beyond topics usually covered in political texts.
“The portions that are of particular interest to me [in the book] are the ones that bear directly on Buddhist teachings,” he said. “Even though other people have written sort of tangentially about broad Buddhist approaches to government, it always seemed to me to be kind of an add-on.”
One grounding teaching included in the text concerns the difference between pain
“Pain is when you stub your toe and it hurts,” Moore said. “Suffering is when you go, ‘Why did I have to stub my toe again? Why did I leave those hand weights on the floor? Why do bad things always happen to me?’”
Stubbing your toe is a fact — it just hurts. The narrative we create around the fact is what the Buddha calls suffering, Moore said.
To liken it to politics: the presence of politics is a fact, but the narratives we tell ourselves about politics and our political candidates may overstate their power in our lives and cause more distress than benefit. The narratives we create around our political systems are an option.
“Inform yourself, make a choice, try to elect the best person — but don’t fool yourself into thinking that’s the most important thing that’s happening,” Moore said. “Even if you think the stakes are high, which I do, personally, there have been good regimes and bad regimes in history, and people have still achieved enlightenment or lived the way that Jesus lived or been morally earnest essayists living in the woods.”
“Buddhism and Political Theory” has recently been translated to Korean, which is rare for most academic texts, which Moore said pleased him.
“That suggests it’s going to have some legs. It’s not just going to end up on a shelf, collecting dust,” Moore said.