The Dharma and Politics

Recently my relationship with the dharma has taken me to topics that are politically controversial.  When I prepared a dharma talk on the second precept, about stealing, it seemed pointless to draw a boundary between theft between individuals and theft at the level of national and global societies marked by ever-widening inequality.   The principle of nonharming is the same.  Vast numbers of people are being harmed by unfair economic policies.

Especially in democratic societies, each individual is a political entity, with a vital civic role as a voter.  That role can be abdicated, but that also abandons the responsibility to keep society from letting some people harm others for their own advantage.   The fine print of how that is defined is truly in the realm of politics, rather than dharma.  The second precept, though, calls on us to think about this and act to keep our society from depriving people of what should be theirs.

My next foray to the border of politics came the following week, when I gave a talk about equanimity.  Often misunderstood as being without emotion, equanimity actually opens the heart to connect fully with our experience.  It gives us the balance to care deeply and to let go, and therefore we gain the courage to care even more.

As I looked around, I noticed many people suffering from being very concerned about the 2016 U.S. election, whatever their political position.  The barrage of meanness during this campaign has caused what’s been called “election stress disorder,” leading many to sink to the same level of nastiness that has filled the newsfeeds for over a year.

Blaming it on ‘politics’ and withdrawing from civic involvement is both another form of abdication and a kind of detachment, which is the near enemy of equanimity.  In contrast, mindful engagement with events lets us hear what’s being said without adopting the ill will behind it.   We can protect ourselves from the mind- and heart-numbing, constant scroll of vitriol on media, by paying attention long enough to be informed, and then turning it off

Life isn’t simple, and the polarization of American society won’t end on November 8.  It is a wound that’s infecting much of this world, and it requires healing.  This will call on us all to think carefully about the way our laws and customs cause harm, and then act to protect everyone, political ally and opponent alike.  

As a dharma teacher, it isn’t my role to advocate political positions.  When I encourage people to engage fully, with open hearts and minds, though, that includes responsible political involvement.  The dharma leads us to connect with our world wisely and wholeheartedly, letting the principles of kindness and non-harming be our guides.

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