My philosophical awakening occurred in Thailand in 1997; but it has been over the past decade, “the ohs,” that I’ve really had the chance to develop my thoughts. As that decade closes, I would like to note how my thoughts were shaped by their time.
I spent almost the entire decade living in the United States, except for two three-month stints in Toronto in 2001 and India in 2005. It was not the ideal decade in which to do this, for the US of this decade was the US of George W. Bush: a man who opposed almost everything I had ever stood for, whether substantively (torture, wars of choice, gutting environmental regulations), procedurally (incompetent patronage appointments for natural disasters, governing unilaterally without respect for other branches of government) or symbolically (insisting on suits and ties in the White House). I had grown up despising Ronald Reagan, but Reagan now looked like a saint compared to W – Reagan at least was competent. And in the face of all this, Americans returned him to office in 2004.
For my many American friends – the vast majority of them left-wingers like me – this decade was a time of powerlessness and rage. But they at least could vote, could contribute to political campaigns, could do something about it. For me, the powerlessness was doubled, and so, therefore, was the rage.
But it was also a time that I spent learning about Buddhism, having first become interested in it a few years before. Especially there was Śāntideva, on whom I decided to write my dissertation – and above all his views on anger and patient endurance, which I really began to think about after teaching them in a seminar. In a decade of rage and powerlessness, this was a lifeline.
I spoke a while ago of how S.N. Goenka’s karmic redirection (at a retreat in late 2005) had a tremendous healing effect for me: meditate on wishing your enemies well, and for me that meant George W. Bush. But that was only the second step for me; the process had begun a little earlier, in a way that was equally transformative.
At the end of 2004, when Bush was elected (any “re-” is at least arguable), my rage was at its height. Daily I devoured the news on left-wing political blogs like Daily Kos and Atrios’s Eschaton, full of people who shared my anger. Then as 2005 began I flew to India on a Shastri fellowship to study Buddhist Sanskrit. I was away from the Internet for the first week or two, and print news focused on Indian issues, not American ones. When I got my Internet back a week or so later, the first thing I did was open up Atrios – and shut it back down immediately, before I’d reading the first sentence.
In that moment I had just come to realize Śāntideva’s wisdom – I had come to see how anger was poisoning my soul. For in that week without exposure to American politics, the anger had subsided, and a peace had come with it – but in reading a half-dozen words of Atrios’s, the flame rekindled in an instant. I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to be happy and peaceful; and I could be that way by leaving politics behind.
So far the most controversial feature of my scholarly work, as it developed in the latter half of the decade, has been my skepticism toward politically Engaged Buddhism, and a defence of political quietism like Śāntideva’s. I suspect that this view has cost me academic jobs: I remember well one interview where the interviewers had loved my earlier Marxist work, but the temperature in the room dropped rapidly when I gave my job talk on Śāntideva’s anti-politics. But it would have been hard for me to do otherwise in the face of the decade’s events: Buddhism had saved me from politics. It showed me that a better life was possible without angry political engagement.
Now, finally, at the end of the decade, the political landscape is dramatically different. For the first time in my lifetime, Canada’s government is further right than the US’s, most recently embarrassing itself with a disgraceful obstructionism at the Copenhagen conference. I no longer feel a terrible anger at the government of the country I live in. And yet there remain plenty of opportunities for such anger: first at Canada’s government, and second that even the new US government has done so little. Barack Obama promised us hope: but nothing has been done about climate change, the US remains mired in an Afghanistan war that looks seemingly pointless, and we have yet to see whether he can deliver even on his signature issue of health care.
And yet, one can remain happy. I’ve previously described Buddhism as a critique of hope. A good life has less to do with external situations – of you, of your country, of the world – and more to do with a peace within. With the abandonment of hope in politics can come the abandonment of anger, and a new tranquility. So Obama’s government feels less like a letdown to me than it does to many of my fellows on the left. Is he making the world better, giving us reason to hope? Perhaps not. But he’s at least stopping it from getting significantly worse. After the past decade, that’s reason enough to celebrate.