One City

One City

Buddha was a conservative

by Ellen Scordato

At least, that’s what this article in the American Thinker proposes. In “Tiger, the Buddha, and Me,” writer Robin of Berkeley sets out to prove “Why the Buddha was more Mark Levin than Saul Alinsky.”
She asks, “So who was the Buddha,
anyway? Was he like Alinsky, steamrolling social justice through by any
means necessary? Or was he a conservative, teaching prudence, ethical
behavior, and accepting the world as it is?


After a series of quotes and assertions, Robin concludes the Buddha’s teachings on personal responsibility place him squarely in the modern Conservative camp.

And the comments begin to fly back at her! I’m fascinated by

how easily we modern thinkers slot Buddhism into the currently popular model of duality: liberal vs conservative. God vs atheism. These poles determine much of current public cultural and social debate. Whatever concept we have at hand, we deposit neatly in one slot or the other. On/off, I/O, that’s how computers work and, very evidently, how we work too.

Robin states that conservatives believe in personal responsibility as the basis of ethical action, speech, and thought in this world.; Buddha did too, and so he’s a conservative.


Wait a minute, how did liberals get labeled as NOT supportive of personal responsibility? That seems a bit ridiculous to me.

The author of the American Thinker article states:
Here’s my favorite
story about the Buddha: A grieving young mother from a poor background
begged him to revive her dead son. Not only was she heartbroken, but
she feared her husband’s wealthy family would punish and shun her for
the child’s death.   

Buddha promised to bring the boy back to life if she returned with a
mustard seed from a home where death had never visited. She thanked him
profusely and set off for town.  

young mother knocked on door after door and heard heartbreaking stories
of loss. Finally, she grasped the Buddha’s teaching: that sorrow is a
part of life. She returned, bowed deeply to the Buddha, and asked him
to help her bury her child.

if the Buddha were an Alinskyite, the story would have ended
differently. The Buddha would have become enraged by all the social
injustices and organized a protest at her family’s house. He might even
have sent in his goon squad to scare the crap out of them.)”


I had to laugh at that. It’s one of my favorite stories too, but it seems to point out that humans share the basic state of humanity; that we are going to die. That we share common experience. No one is exempt, no matter how “personally responsible” they are.

What is the jump from a recognition of our common human condition to her portrait of an “Alinskyite”? I don’t see the connection, frankly.

Too often we set up straw men as those on the other side of the debate and knock them down. Straw men that have no relationship to the real people on the other side of the debate. We love to make up concepts like liberal and conservative and knock them down. And frankly, I think that’s what Robin of Berkeley is doing here.


But I’d love to hear what others think of this article. Basically, it amused me that the writer arrogated the idea of personal responsibility to conservatives while denying that liberals endorse personal responsibility, too.

Take a current “liberal” position, a green one: be responsible for your own energy use. Don’t waste stuff. Sounds pretty “conservative” to me. Let’s discuss.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 6:35 pm

The article itself is quite good IMHO. I am, at this moment, one who identifies as liberal, but the article makes assumptions about liberals that are extreme and not grounded in reality. My path to Buddhism has either made me more conservative in my views or allowed me to understand more those who identify as such. My skepticism with the conservative movement is found not with the article, but with the reader’s comments. The greater portion of them boast Christianity’s superiority over ways of life, propping up Jesus as the One True Savior, etc. Obviously these people are confused and do not represent the majority of Christians in the world (US, perhaps, I don’t know). However, the author would need to work very hard to show readers that her form of intellectual conservatism was the true face of the American conservative movement as opposed to the spiritual and personal insecurity that prevails in the comments section. In addition, the idea that the Buddha would identify with a political ideal is absurd. It is a far stretch to go from “liberation comes from within” to “liberals are stupid and conservatives are smart”, which is the overwhelming tone of the article.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm

That was my response Ellen – the idea that personal responsibility is something liberals don’t advocate is ridiculous, as is the idea that it is somehow incompatible with advocating for social justice. In fact, in the Cakkavatti-sihanada Sutta the Buddha makes the connection between criminal justice and social justice explicitly.
However, I agree with her insofar as she feels like liberals have a tendency to appropriate Buddhism wholesale, as if western liberalism and Buddhism were two words for the exact same thing. Good thing she’s never read Turning Wheel–Shambhala Sun is mild by comparison.
“Enlightenment is the death of hope.” –be curious where she quoted that from. Sounds more like Chogyam Trungpa than Shakyamuni.
Speaking of whom, she could have used him a little more to bolster her case, supporter of Pinochet and Reagan that he was. Guess she hadn’t heard.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 3:54 am

Buddha was compassionate for others and cared about all sentient beings. This is far from what a conservative is ever concerned with. This is a truly liberal trait.
Conservatives are concerned about moral values that lack real others.
Go through the list of what conservatives care about mot and they will be issues without victims or ethical concerns for others.
Guns, God, Taxes and what others are doing in their own bedrooms is what conservatives care about.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 4:54 am

As a politically conservative Buddhist, I have to say, this is a biased and ridiculous (imho) article (the American Thinker article, not the beliefnet one!)
However, it seems to me that it’s human nature to try to fit ideals and idols into their own ways of thinking.
(Please don’t think I’m assuming a standard about general people; this is just my observations based on personal experience:)
Most politically active liberals I personally know think of Buddha as a liberal. Most liberal Christians think of Christ as a liberal, and most conservative Christians think of Christ as a conservative.
So it doesn’t surprise me that someone is trying to fit a religious figure into a political frame; it seems to me that it happens all the time.
Buddha wasn’t a political figure. If he was, I wouldn’t be Buddhist. :)
This quote doesn’t fit like a glove, but I think it’s relevant:
“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice that it always coincides with their own desires.” – Susan B. Anthony

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posted January 26, 2010 at 5:45 am

Buddha would not have given 2 cents for the liberal/conservative debate, nor would he have identified himself with either “political” ideology.
Politics is the struggle over who gets what from whom.
It is counter to the precepts of buddhism, “Take nothing that is not given”
Buddha is neither.
More of a libertarian … if you must.
I really dislike people co-opting philosophies and cheapeing them in such a manner.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 6:06 am

I’m a Buddhist student, and in spite of the biased view of that text, I think the article and the discussion raise one or two issues that speak to me: the often celebratory tone that seem to be predominant now among Buddhists, that seem to be eager to “defend” “their” view, and the connection of this with a broader and maybe complex context, in which I see a kind of denial of personal responsibility among some Buddhist leaderships, or at least the use of a valid teaching for not taking action in situations that call for it.
One says: “1. All beings are good. 2. People do stupid things. 3. These people are good too”, as an answer to controversial issues raised by others, as if raising issues was a personal attack, and for not taking action.
In my opinion, these situations point to a kind of “Buddhist territoriality” that may have more to do with the article in question than most Buddhists would have liked. I’m not saying I agree with the article, but I see it as an opportunity to think about how I’m collectively behaving as a Buddhist student.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 7:13 am

Carlos, I think you’re confusing some things.
You are right, in that people are not their actions. However, that does not mean that people are not responsible for their actions. I’ve never heard any Buddhist ‘leader’ say otherwise.
I’ve never heard a celebratory ‘tone’ described as a bad thing, and although some people are overzealous in their endeavors (I don’t think for a second that I’m not guilty of this), what you see as people ‘defending’ views that you seem to think actually do not ‘belong’ to them, I see as clarification of statements at best, and showing the other side of the balance at worst.

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Christopher Mohr

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:24 am

The article, while it makes several very good points, does itself and its author no justice by descending into petty over-generalizations. Perhaps without such a condescending tone, it would have been regarded as a great article. As it is, it’s just so-so.
As a political moderate, and basing my understanding of Buddhism on the extant scriptural library, it seems Buddha was actually somewheres in the middle, with a mixed track record (though the vast majority of Buddhists around the world are heavily conservative on social issues, and scripturally correct in being so). Greg is good to bring up the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, because it advocates all kinds of fun things on both sides of the spectrum, from the king’s duty to see his subjects prosper (think government needing to look out for the economic well-being of its citizens) to nations having armies and using them. The sutta quote on that is telling, showing subjugation by force:
6. ‘Then, rising from his seat,
covering one shoulder with his robe,
the King took a gold vessel in his left hand,
sprinkled the Wheel with his right hand, and said:
“May the noble Wheel-Treasure turn, may the noble Wheel-Treasure conquer!”
The Wheel turned to the east, and the King followed it with his fourfold army. And in whatever country the Wheel stopped,
the King took up residence with his fourfold army. And those who opposed him in the eastern region came and said:
“Come, Your Majesty, welcome!
We are yours, Your majesty. Rule us, Your Majesty.”
The Buddhist Wheel-Turning King goes into a country, takes up residence with his army (kinda sounds like a modern FOB in, say Afghanistan), and so destroys his opponents that they beg him to rule them, and he does so with dharma.
Anyway, back to the article. Two of the better points the author makes are:
“The Buddha wasn’t an ACORN, get-in-your-face type of a guy. He admonished people to face their demons. The Buddha declared, “You cannot save another; you can save only yourself.””
This comes straight from the Dhammapada (I don’t care for that particular translation, but that’s besides the point), and can validly be interpreted as being an anti “government will solve all your problems” that some in the more extreme wing of the liberal camp have argued. Government can’t save you, you have to save yourself.
“The Left finds endless excuses for bad behavior: “He was a poor minority.” “She was a victim of homophobia.” But in the end, no one is let off the hook. Every one of us, weak or powerful, rich or poor, will be held accountable for our actions.”
Ultimately, in Buddhism she’s right, outside factors do not change the action or the resulting karmic consequence. If a young, impoverished Hispanic father steals a portion of beef from the grocery store to feed his family, from a Buddhist perspective, it doesn’t matter that he is Hispanic, it matters that he stole the portion of beef. Some on the Left will comment, “oh, but out of compassion, we should forgive him, he is a minority and impoverished, and all.”
Let’s look on that concept for a bit. Aside from the fact that compassion in Buddhism does not have the same meanings imputed to compassion in the modern discourse, what does compassion mean? The term itself derives from the prefix “com” meaning with, and “passion” which means suffer (being itself a derivative of pathos). So, compassion means “to suffer with”. How does one suffer with the Hispanic father who stole the beef? Do you forgive him, and essentially sanction his wrong action? Well, that’s one way. The other way is to realize that he is suffering, but to make sure he understands that his action, and all intentional actions, generate consequences and reactions, and have him face the consequences.
Soft compassion and hard compassion, sometimes liberal and sometimes conservative. Because neither side is entirely right.
As to the Buddha being a social reformer and revolutionary figure…not nearly as much as some people wish he was. About the only time that he’s recorded as trying to stop something is when he stops in the road to block the army that’s about to destroy his clan and family. They ask him to move three times, and he refuses, but they ask a fourth time, and by Indian social custom, he does, letting his clan be slaughtered. Sound very liberal to you? And the article which originally spawned this post brings up (if poorly argued) the story of Kisagotami. The moral there is twofold. First, you cannot escape suffering, and second, don’t count on outside assistance (hmm…does government qualify? I think so). Buddha, though his attainment of the iddhi (supremundane powers, aka magical abilities) COULD have effected the child’s resurrection. He did not. It could be argued that he lacked compassion by not helping Kisagotami face reality, or it could be that through his compassion, he helped her more by NOT helping her, and by making her help herself. Is that liberal or conservative? Was it generous (the definition of liberal) or preserving of existing conditions (the definition of conservative) for Buddha to deny her request for assistance and instead let her suffer so that she could see through to relaity? In our modern political dichotomy, it would seem rather conservative.
So if Buddha wasn’t liberal or conservative, is Buddhism liberal or conservative? Well, let’s look at current examples of social issues, and how the Buddhist sangha looks at them. scripturally, Buddhism is pragmatic, neither liberal nor conservative, as scripture shows, but embracing some elements from each side. how does that manifest itself in real terms?
Common social issues of the day: abortion, war, poverty, social justice, religious freedom, the role of religion in public institutions, crime, immigration, national security, health care, women’s rights, GLBTQ issues. I’ll be using “Buddhist countries”, where a significant Buddhist population exists as example. Individual sanghas differ in their opinions.
Abortion: outside of Japan (the oddball example) NO Buddhist country allows unfettered access to abortion. Most don’t allow it at all. Cambodia allows it up to a certain stage, then it’s off limits. Scripturally, life is said to begin before conception in Buddhism, with some Theravadins claiming that the karmic energy from one life moves into the womb to begin another life which creates the conditions for fertilization to occur. Thus a fetus is a person, and killing people, as I’ve been told a number of times on this blog in relation for my role as a Buddhist chaplain candidate in the military, violates the first precept. Ergo, abortion is wrong according to scripture, unless you are willing to relax the absolutist view some take on the precepts.
War: this comes up in a number of scriptures (such as the passage I quoted above from the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta), and actually is justified. Outside of Japan (again, the oddball exception) Buddhist nations have military units engaged in military activities, sanctioned by the Sangha. National security is in the same boat.
Poverty and crime: I interlinked these because they tend to fit in the same boat. Both have elements of past-life karma within them, and both require one to face the consequences of such. Crime requires one to face the effects of this life actions, and the effects are not generally positive. On the other hand, the aforementioned Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta does suggest that poverty is the root cause of crime, and that if no one lived in poverty (as was the case eons ago when people lived for 80,000 years each), then crime would not happen. however, we are still in the destructive part of the cycle. According to the Buddha, there will come a time when the human lifespan will be 10 years, females will be marriageable at age 5, and there will be a “sword interval” of 7 days that wipes out all those who do not see rightly, after which the lifespan will slowly increase back up to 80,000 years. So there’s hope, but it’s not for a very, very long time.
Social justice and religious freedom: again, these are interlinked. While most Buddhist countries don’t have any explicit policy against religious freedom, they don’t need such to have the social conditions which de facto limit religious freedom. Same thing with social justice. Look at Japan, for an easy example. Or Thailand, or Cambodia, or Burma, or Vietnam (okay, officially an atheist nation, but largely Buddhist). All of them have significant social or legislative histories of denying social justice and equality for all members of their nations. And this is sanctioned by the Sangha.
Women’s rights: basically the same as above, socially. Women finally have suffrage, but in real terms, systemic discrimination that does not get addressed exists, and will continue to. Scripturally, Buddha refused to let women into the Sangha until Ananda persuaded him to (this after his step-mother begged him three times, then begged him three times with a group of willing future nuns). And STILL they could only come in after accepting a number of additional, harsh rules that monks were not subject to, which holds true to this day. how would the Sangha advocate for women’s rights in society with any integrity when they are deny women equal status within the Sangha?
GLBTQ issues: name even one Buddhist country where gays can marry. I dare you. Thailand? Nope. Sri Lanka? Nope. Japan? Nope, although they did debate whether or not a gay couple who married in another country where that was legal could be considered married in Japan. And let’s not forget Razor Ramon Hard Gay and his popularity there… Cambodia? Despite the king’s approval several years ago after seeing a same sex wedding, the anser is a resounding “Nope”. Vietnam? Burma? Nepal? Bhutan? The Tibetan government in exile in India? All no. Scripturally, Monks are forbidden from sexual intercourse in general, but in particular with males (see Vinaya). Correct me if I’m wrong.
My point is, Buddhism presents a decidedly non-liberal (though non-conservative as well) way of life.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 10:19 am

Buddha had too much love and empathy to be a Conservative.
Also he did not have enough “con” to fit the bill!

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Martin Schwalbaum

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:22 am

You are a nice person but very naive.
You can’t argue with Conservatives.
Nature or nurture, either way, they
can’t be reached. It’s part of the
ongoing adaptation of life. New forms
emerge. Think of them as a living Dodo.

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Anan E. Maus

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:28 am

First of all, people are crazy. That is the best starting point for any discussion. And that insanity includes me, you, and everyone else.
If you don’t believe that, then you are already living in a strong bit of self-delusion.
Don’t believe me? Just think about your spouse, partner, etc. Does anyone in a successful relationship not believe their spouse is not a little nuts?
Do men not believe women are just a tad bit crazy? Do women not believe men are not just a tad bit nuts?
Yes, we are.
So if we start with that premise, the ideas that humanity comes up with are not so odd. They are, of course, completely nutz, but then again, that is part of who we are.
So, of course, Hitler is a great guy, Gandhi and King were horrible people, we live to serve corporations, not ourselves…and on and on and on and on and on.
Buddha was conservative?
Who writes something like this? A conservative writes something like this, trying to prove that the conservative political point of view rules all. That could be from a political motive, or it could just be a matter of perception. People want to see their heroes as a manifestation of themselves. So, for soldiers who fight in war, they want to see Buddha or Christ as a great warrior….even though both clearly advocated against violence. And folks who are very very attached to their own military service will go to elaborate lengths to prove, by complicated argumentation, that Christ and Buddha were both pro-war.
Now, someone can come in and argue from the opposite point of view.
That is not terribly pertinent either.
If we want to know who and what Buddha was…we really basically need to sit down (in meditation), devote our lives to helping others, devote our lives to extremely pure morality…and focus all our attention there, not in spouting ideas without the appropriate long background in spiritual disciplines.
There is so much work to do on the spiritual path…in terms of helping those who suffer, in terms of conquering our own moral weaknesses, in terms of breaking down barriers in meditation….real seekers don’t have time to spend in this kind of speculation. They are at work, at hard work, trying to make the world a better place…inwardly as spiritual soldiers and outwardly as people directly helping end suffering.
Personally, I believe that spiritual Masters embody all political points of view….though not from the selfish and greedy motivations of men. I think Masters do indeed embody a moral purity that is most attractive to conservatives, not to liberals. And I think Masters embody a social society that is based on compassion and giving, not on every man for himself. However, I also believe that complete self-reliance, even in the face of a fully oppressive government, can also be part of the spiritual path. I recall one instance of a great Catholic mystic who was a medieval slave. No outer conditions can limit the spirit. So, I think Masters are both conservative and liberal and at the same time. But assuming we have some real identification with who they are, is usually a very very big mistake.
We need to sit down, be quiet and still and practice the path…not theorize about it. Then we come in alignment with who the Buddha is and what he wants us to be doing in our lives.

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Buddhism as Radical?

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:37 am

Two thoughts come to mind. The first is the Buddha’s radical rejection of caste. Not very conservative. Which is not to say that the Buddha was politically liberal, either. I agree that trying to force the Buddha into such political categories is a futile exercise.
Second is one of my favorite stories about the Dalai Lama. When asked about homosexuality, he began to explain the traditional Buddhist view that it is a form of sexual misconduct. Then he caught himself and said, “Well, if two people agree, and nobody is hurt, then I guess it’s OK.” True, this attitude hasn’t trickled down to the Buddhist masses, or to conservative governments in ostensibly Buddhist countries. But it very neatly shows how a non-theistic worldview makes it possible to turn on a dime – something the traditional Abrahamic religions, for example, have a lot of trouble with, what with “God said this” and “God said that.” Again, not exactly conservative, in the way the term is used in this country.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 10:49 am

buddha was a corporatist?

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Your Name

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

I say amen!Better i’d be quiet than argue.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 10:57 am

If human beings, did not fall into these types of perceptual traps and arguments in the first place, they would be Buddhas. 😉

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posted January 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

Anyone who, even for a second, feels a pure clear confidence on hearing the truth will experience immeasuable happiness. Why?
Because at that moment, that person is not caught up in the concept of a self or a living being or a life span. He is not caught up in concepts about the world, nor is he caught up in concepts about nothingness. He does not take any notice of the idea that this is a sign or this or that is not a sign. For if you are caught up in ideas,then you will be caught up in the self. And even if you are caught up in ideas about nothingness, you will still be caught up in the self. That’s why we should not get attached to the belief that things either exist or do not exist. This is the hidden meaning when I say that my teachings are a raft to be abandoned when you see true being. Gautama Buddha..Diamond Sutra

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posted January 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

To categorize the Buddha is to categorize ourselves. Who here wants to be defined by somebody else (or defined at all)? Conservative and liberal are superficial designations that miss the point.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 11:12 am

The fascination with Buddhism in the past few years is interesting. “Liberals” & “Conservatives” in the US seem to want to claim all sorts of things about the Buddha and Buddhism. From the sacred writings, it seems Buddha was conservative and liberal. In the US, many people seem to compare the Buddha to Jesus Christ. We Buddhists know that the Buddha means enlightened and therefore anyone can be Buddha. As a matter of fact we all are Buddha. Jesus was Buddha. But to say that Buddha was of “modern Conservative camp” is in err as you would say he was of “modern Liberal camp”. The modern conservatives place much of their ideology in Fundamentalist Christianity it seems. The modern Liberals place much of their ideology in Fundamentalist Socialism it could be said. While neither is completely wrong, it is wrong as an absolute that tramples on others. That is not what the Buddha or Jesus taught. So if you want to know what camp the Buddha or Jesus was in, ask him when you get to Nirvana or Heaven. Or better yet–Listen! You are Buddha. You are Jesus. Rest your mind and forget about that in which you “know” and bombards you everyday. Meditation is the key. There you will find your peace, answers and ways to end suffering for yourself and the world. It is not as simple as an instant drink you stir in to a liquid. It is a simple as listening. Namaste.

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Your Name

posted January 26, 2010 at 11:25 am

It appears Robin of Berkeley created an illusionary hypo utilizing her own conditioned beliefs and then declared it real! Highly unlikely the Bubbha would have been labeled a conservative considering the culture and time that he lived.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 11:39 am

The Buddha was known for his compassion. Doesn’t that make him and modern conservatism mutually exclusive?

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posted January 26, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Lots of food for thought here. I’m not sure where I stand on all these points but a couple of things come to mind…
1. Given the Buddha’s engagement with the ultimate nature of reality, doesn’t it seem pointless to try to fit him in under one subhead or the other of the much more relative paradigm of modern western political ideology?
2. One thing I’ve observed lately in contemplating the “values” of particular individuals who subscribe either to a conservative or a liberal point of view is that there is a lot of ethical common ground there. Both liberals and conservatives value and try to practice compassion. At the same time, there is a common tendency to harbor doubts about others and otherness. A primary difference seems to be that liberals, and progressive policies, seem more inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt–and the fruits of compassion–to an ever-widening circle of beings (something that the Dalai Lama urges people to practice doing), while conservatives, and conservative policies, seem more at ease sharing the good life with a neatly circumscribed “us” while leaving a remote “them” to fend for itself.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Liberal or conservative…what will you do when you see the world?

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posted January 26, 2010 at 1:11 pm

“It is an irony of the current skirmishing about health care that those who could be considered Mr. Alinsky’s sworn enemies — the groups, many industry sponsored, who are trying to shout down Congressional town hall meetings — have taken a page (chapters, really) from his handbook on community organizing.” from NY Times article.
So who is what is by who says it. ciao

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posted January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Distill it all down and political leanings ulitimately have to do with personal freedom. The more power the government has, the less freedom an individual has. Broadly speaking, Liberals favor more government (for better or worse), conservatives favor more personal responsibility and less government. Since the Buddha’s life was devoted to having people become ultimately free, I would argue he was the ultimate conservative.

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Yotetsu David Teschler

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

This discussion seems not grounded in what the Buddha taught:
The Three Poisons:
1. Greed
2. Anger
3. Ignorance
Additionally, that we are trapped by our ‘naming’ – once we have named a thing e.g. ‘conservative’ we have lost our ability to be unbiased observers and see reality for what it actually is. Naming screens aspects of reality out and others in, so … no real seeing of what actually is.
Lastly, that the ‘relative’ and the ‘absolute cannot be separated, no matter how hard we try. The ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘universal’ are the same. To misinterpretation of the precepts for ethical behavior is often in this realm. They are not commands, or ideas, or thoughts, or interesting concepts. They are ‘Vows’ of behavior and action; so when we vow “not to kill or harm” it means both the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘universal’. I.E.: all living things in and all ways; physical, emotional, economic, social, and religious.
Lay persons, learn about ‘the way’, and practice. Monks, vow to ‘be the way’ and practice it. Priests (like myself) vow to ‘be the way – for others’ and practice. It is our practice that binds us as a human community, no matter what that practice is.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Despite this coming from a right-winger, I think this was a great article that raised a lot of interesting points and also made several Christian conservative heads explode!
Obviously, a religious teacher who was born 2500 years ago is going to be difficult to place in contemporary political categories. That said, it’s clear that many of the ideas recorded in Buddhist sutras have a lot of resonance with Christian conservative values, including things like being tormented in Hell as punishment/karma for sins and the importance of guilt and shame in morality.
Making a case for liberal values seems much more trickier – ironically, it’s much easier to articulate liberal values by referencing the New Testament, which is why liberal Buddhists are sometimes called Protestant Buddhists. In order to combat conservatism, liberal values are transplanted from Christianity to Buddhism, which lets us oppose “Christianity” as a whole while still preserving the liberal parts in its new Buddhist home. Buddhism doesn’t have a strong tradition in the West, so that means you can interpret it just about any way you want to and there are no Buddhist authorities to tell you that you’re wrong. This leads to Westerners who claim to be Buddhists, but understand, live and practice in ways that are alien to any Asian Buddhist of the last 2500 years.
Rather than actually Buddhist, I like to think of these new forms as “Buddhist-inspired” or “Buddhist-influenced” because picking and choosing what you personally think is relevant doesn’t do justice to a tradition, as much as this is embraced in Western Buddhism.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

It seems that Robin of Berkeley takes a simplistic view of karma and uses it to justify a simplistic view Buddhist ethics. I’d say if you’re using the words of the Buddha to claim that people get what they deserve and efforts to help alleviate suffering are pointless then you’re doing it wrong. It’s just a wild guess here, but I’d say it’s pretty easy for a psychotherapist living in Berkeley California to proclaim that we’ve all earned our present circumstances in this life (I’m not sure the people in Haiti who’ve lost family members or the people living on the streets here in the US would agree). It’s disheartening to see someone use the Buddha’s words as a weapon (and the words used seem suspect: I’ve never seen any translation of the Buddha’s final words include “Learn to look after yourself; do not wait for outside help,” and a Google search of the supposed quote “Enlightenment is the death of hope” yields exactly 5 hits, all links to the article). The Buddha taught during a specific time, often tailoring his message to a particular audience, and I’d argue didn’t teach “truth” as much as taught a path to the truth. Focusing on individual passages from the canon that reinforce what we already believe doesn’t say much about what the Buddha actually taught. When I first started reading the Pali Canon, I was rather disappointed that the Buddha I found wasn’t as political active as I would have liked. There aren’t any grand pronouncements for a better society or even much about actually helping others. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who consciously practices the 8 fold path wouldn’t be kind, generous and caring. Whatever good I try to do in this world isn’t because I’m bent on being a good Buddhist but on being a good human being and I think the Buddhist path makes me a better person, hopefully the kind of person that doesn’t need to be told to do good and who has the wisdom to actually know how to effectively do it.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Such labelling is generally unhelpful and inaccurate.
What is going on in the world now – bankers’ avarice and theft of public funds, the pushing into debt of generations to nullify the failures, incompetence and greed of a small number of people – deserves peoples’ anger.
It may well be one of the 3 Poisons, and on a deeply spiritual level I accept that one’s spiritual development does require that one transcends anger, but as the song goes: ‘Anger is an energy’. It depends what you do with it. If it is channelled it can be a force for good. If it is uncontrolled it can just strike out wildly and cause damage and hurt.
There are people in government and business today who really need to hear the peoples’ anger, and to fear it too. Otherwise they will not curb their deceipt and avarice, this they have made clear.
On a deep level this can be regarded as negative and not condusive to spiritual development. Yet the world is as it is and we cannot retreat from all worldy things. Sometimes it is true dharma to address them directly, though as skillfully as possible, rather than hiding behind philosophical aphorisms and then turn round when trouble comes to one’s own doorstep and ask others to sort out the problem because one wishes to avoid doing or saying anything that might compromise one’s spiritual tenets and ideals.
Buddhists are often accused of being too passive by non-Buddhists. In return they sometimes claim that those non-Buddhists have not understood the doctrine properly. They are in affect telling their followers that those people are ignorant. This is sometimes accurate, but be careful: religious groups among different religions the world over, including buddhists, often resort effectively to defaming those that would criticise them to divert criticism that is well-founded and this can lead to any number of unwholesome thoughts, words and deeds.
Effectively, followers are asked to ignore the Buddha’s teachings and NOT to test things out for themselves. Rather, just to blindly believe. And so we find a faith, if indeed Buddhism may be so defined, retreating into dogma along the lines of the world’s monotheistic religions.
I recall many years ago being told the story of a particular demon who was terrorizing the villagers in the district where the Buddha was currently staying. For the common good he magically made the ground open up to consume the demon, thus saving many innocent lives. Effectively, he killed this being. But he had to weigh up that act and its result against any numbers of casualties had the demon been able to continue unabated.
All this brings me back to the current world financial crisis and the money-bragging ways of a small number of financiers. Why should the vast majority sit idly by and allow them to keep stuffing their pockets with the money that the people were forced to agree would be used to guarantee banks’ survival after deceipt, failure and greed on a trully epic scale, only to see the same people stuffing as much of it into their pockets as they can get away with?
Does this not make you feel angry? Do you care whether such people regard themselves as conservative or liberal or simply that they view you and your children in such low regard that they would steal from you right under your noses? Should you meekly turn away and allow them to get on with it, safe in the knowledge that you are following your spiritual course and perhaps even feeling a little superior?
Or will you feel the anger that ought naturally to arise at such injustice and resort to find your voice and demand that it is stopped? And if you do, does that mean you cannot be a Buddhist? Who is paying you bills and putting food on your table tomorrow?

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posted January 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Unfortunately the conservative use of the terms “Less Government” is mileading. What they mean is less Government for them and more government for the rest of us. They seem to want the government to tell gays that they can’t get married, they have
long desired that the government deny women control of their own bodies and what about the personal freedom restricted by blue nose drug laws. Conservatives want for themselves what they would deny to others. Personal freedom and responsibility belong to us all. You can’t claim the moral high ground until these rights are universal. I won’t even get into the strange bedfellows of conservatives and christianity. The fact that they claim this religion as their own and then ignore every tenet of it is the saddest part of the conservative movement.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

It is interesting to me that in many ways this question parallels the debate between the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. The Hinayana (“small raft”) sees the primary focus on the individual’s striving for enlightenment. The Arthat is the paradigm. The Mahayana (“big raft”) has the Bodhissatva as the paradigm. He is someone who could achieve personal salvation but refuses to do so until he/she can bring everyone along with.

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Lanka Silva

posted January 26, 2010 at 6:41 pm

It is sad to see people struggle with their modern terminaology and ideas and try to interpret Buddha through them. Buddha only wanted to help the humans who suffer from the expereince of birth, aging, sickness, death and all sadness coming form not getting waht is wanted and getting what is not wanted. Buddh adoes not care about the groups try to define the world as modern people do. The whole world as one can see and hear, taste, smell, feel and think about is within you. Not out there.The world in the sense the Buddha see is not the world we all tlak about but the total experiencce what one has. When one can understand that all the suffering is coming form the inability to see the suffering itself as it is, the ignorance that one cannot see the reason of suffering is within oneself, cannot find how the suffering ends and the path to end suffering even if being told and explained well. Buddha only taught how one could understand these 4 noble truths. Anyone trying to see the Buddha throuhg coloured glasses will see what they want to see. He never talked about the world as it is seen by mnay today at all and therfore his dhamm is for only those who can see through the covers of ignorance. All these debates are useless towards understanding what a human who wants to be liberated from such suffering has to do. It is just recycling jink from the brains of those groping in the dark. some are thinking that they can see the Buddha trough the modern concepts of fractions- not knowing that the Buddha only show the totallity not individuality.

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Bernard Long

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Don’t we all just LOVE attaching labels to people and things?
I think the Buddha would have said: “These are all just views.”

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posted January 26, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I am not so sure there was any actual Buddha. It seems Buddhism was an offshoot of Hinduism that gained popularity for many years in India because they were Hindu “light” and they did not ask for an animal sacrifice. Sacrificing livestock was quite the imposition economically on the public. Buddhists required that no animal be killed specifically for them. This is one of the reasons why apparently the Dali Lama will eat a meat lunch on an airplane, the animal was not killed for him. Ultimately the Brahmans became complete vegetarians and won back most of the populace. At least that is how it seemed to work in India. I would say the Hindus were the conservatives, the Buddhists were the liberal progressive interlopers and then the Hindus once again became the progressive approach that may or may not now be liberal or conservative unless, I guess, there is something to compare it to.

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posted January 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm

I think the most interesting point was the straw man comment. The majority of magazine articles don’t really try and think through their position. They use generalizations and cliches (i.e., the straw men) that they can easily shoot down to prove their point. They are not interested in true learning, only in winning.

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posted January 27, 2010 at 7:08 am

There are 2 Al’s (at least) that post here. I am not the Al that wrote the second to last post.

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The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

posted January 27, 2010 at 9:58 am

Robin, the article’s author, is a born-again Buddhist: a wild child, by her own admission, “saved” from self-destructive behavior by a husband who, she says, figured out his life at the age of 8. (Is it enlightened or pathetic to live a life determined by an 8 year-old?) Every born-again person strives to fit the entire world into the thing that saved her. But the world refuses to fit.
I confuse, confound, and annoy my acquaintances with seemingly contradictory and inconsistent behavior. They chide me when I give my last dollar to a homeless person; “What are you going to eat?” They chide me when I refuse to give money to Haitian relief efforts or Greenpeace; “Where is your compassion?” I have explained, but I have stopped explaining; it does no good.
“To one with faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” St. Augustine.
“Conservative” and “liberal” are labels like all words. Labels obscure a jar’s contents. The only way to *know* a jar’s contents is to dip in your finger and taste.
So have done with labels, and labeling labelers. Just “seek your own salvation with diligence.” Heed these words of the Buddha quoted by Robin:
“Dear to the world is the man who… pursues his own business.”
Yeah, there’s a song for that:

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Your Name

posted January 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm

We all want Buddha or Jesus on our side, so we pick and choose what they have said to support our beliefs. Hard not to really listen to everything they said, especially when it rubs against what we think and feel is so right and good or at least convenient and pleasurable, then we go deaf!!!

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posted January 27, 2010 at 12:49 pm

My post corrected, sigh, further evidence I need to work on my mindfulness.
We all want Jesus and Buddha on our side. It’s hard to hear any of their teachings that don’t correspond to our beliefs and desires! We go deaf without knowing it.

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posted February 10, 2010 at 3:48 pm

the buddha wasn’t liberal or conservative. he was above politics. and he preached the middle way. plus he preached acceptance of the way things are. politics = samara.

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posted February 19, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I think one aspect of conservatism resonates with Buddhism and that is the fragility and impermanence of everything. Conservatives often seem to feel that America, the Family and core shared values are under attack and can disappear very quickly if they are not protected. Another feeling that comes from Buddhism is the understanding of how little control one has in the world–the meditation can show you that even your own breath and posture are not so easy to control, so this notion of expansive universal systems that emerge out of the liberal doctrines are suspect. Also, conservatives believe in individual liberty, and in that sense “uprightness” of individuals. Each person in Buddhism must concentrate on themselves and their own small circle (sangha) which is the path that ultimately leads to the cessation of suffering in the universal sense.

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Roger Snowden

posted June 14, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I see so many comments that want to ridicule political viewpoints, especially the conservative view.

100 years ago, what we call a “conservative” today was known as a “liberal”, because they held this radical view that personal freedom is a good thing, and government ought to be limited. Sort of a quaint, traditional Buddhist notion, to me.

Then, the term “progressive” was used to foist a form of fascism on us during World War 1, and that term became poison, so FDR and the like co-opted the word “liberal” to replace their tarnished label. After decades of abuse, that term became tarnished and “progressive” is once again in vogue.

Note, ideologies have barely moved. Words changed.

So, when you insist a conservative is staid and opposed to change, or that there is too much “con” amongst them, consider removing the lock from your mind and finding out what someone actually believes before you denigrate them.

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Bill Yoshin Jordan, Roshi

posted April 29, 2012 at 8:11 pm

This is real simple the three treasures of liberalism are
infanticide on demand (abortion) the welfare state and identity politics. 99.9% of buddhists are liberal secularists
claiming to be buddhists and they will attack you for saying these liberal secularist views are inconsistent with the Buddhas views on personal responsibility. I closed the Santa Monica Zen Center after 17 extraordinary years of training and practice and finally coming coming to the conclusion that liberalism disguised as buddhism is an incurable disease and I wasnt interested in continuing
to infect others. This may seem harsh but Maezumi Roshi once told me re: disease ” cure it or cut it off “.
Bill Yoshin Jordan, Roshi
Abbot of Santa Monica Zen Center (closed)

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posted May 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm

@ Bill Yoshin Jordan, Roshi

Please forgive my use of this forum to contact you. I happended across your comment quite by accident. I have had a lot of trouble contacting you. has my permission to share my contact information with you so we can connect. I’d love to hear back form you. Thank you!

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