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In a recent post linking back to an earlier one, I spoke of being “saved from politics.” Judging by the comments and incoming links, that phrase seems to have struck a chord with several readers. But several of those readers, notably Grad Student, also rightly asked: does that mean you are urging us to be apolitical, or even anti-political?

It’s a great question, and one I’ve asked myself a number of times. Being anti-political is a position I’ve flirted with a lot, especially over the course of writing my dissertation, and my personal views are closely entangled with the ideas I address there. In many respects I see the dissertation’s main contribution to Śāntideva scholarship as pointing out the strongly anti-political nature of Śāntideva’s thought, and the underlying reasons for his anti-politics. Śāntideva is, I think, often thought of as a great friend to the Engaged Buddhist program of Buddhist political activism, since he is probably best known as the favourite thinker of that noted activist Tenzin Gyatso, the present (fourteenth) Dalai Lama; I claimed in the dissertation that such a placing of Śāntideva is mistaken.

The dissertation explains this point in great detail (mostly in its fourth, fifth and seventh chapters), but I haven’t yet said much about it on the blog, and I probably should. Briefly: Śāntideva says very little about political action, but what he does say (in the Śikṣā Samuccaya) indicates that he rejects it. He gives a list of genres of information that are not worth knowing or learning about, and includes law and political science (daṇḍanīti) on this list. When he gives advice to kings, it is that they give their kingdoms away.

Why is this? I argue that it’s because Śāntideva rejects or devalues most of what Martha Nussbaum (following Aristotle) would call “external goods”: things not under our control which we would normally want, including relationships, social status and (above all) material goods. For him these things are neutral at best, and most often actively harmful (as I discussed here.) Śāntideva does say that one should give these things to others – one of the reasons why Engaged Buddhists like Stephen Jenkins see him as arguing for political action on behalf of the poor. But Śāntideva’s reasoning for giving things to others, I argue, is not that they benefit from possessing the gift – indeed, they may be harmed. But such harm is worth it when they receive a gift from a bodhisattva, because it produces esteem (śraddhā) toward the bodhisattva – it makes the recipient more likely to listen to the bodhisattva’s dharma teaching. A crucial feature of this gift encounter, however, is that the gift come directly from a bodhisattva. Donations from a government or NGO will not do the trick. And this, I argue, is why Śāntideva does not care about governments; action to help others in politics has no genuinely beneficial effect.

I came to these ideas slowly. When I first presented on Śāntideva at a graduate student workshop, I was excited to talk about what Śāntideva could teach us in a contemporary context; a respondent claimed that if he urged political quietism, we could not be able to accept such a worldview in the present age. (I mentioned this response in this early post.) I was a little cowed by this response at first, and it took me a while to figure out an appropriate reply: but then I realized that that political quietism was, in many respects, itself one of the most important things that Śāntideva has to teach us. Whether we agree or disagree with it, his anti-politics is a profound and impeccably Buddhist idea, one that challenges us in a way we must think about and respond to.

For me, it was intoxicating to discover such an idea at a time when I needed to get away from politics, when caring about politics brought nothing but pain. I felt validated in my search for a better, happier life outside politics. The seventh chapter of the dissertation juxtaposed Śāntideva’s ideas against Nussbaum’s more politically charged philosophy, effectively defending Śāntideva against Nussbaum’s objections.

What the dissertation did not do was take up my own substantive, constructive position on the question at hand – for such constructive positions are largely frowned upon, if not scowled upon, in academic religious studies. But such a lack of attention to constructive views allowed me to get off the hook too easily, to defend Śāntideva’s anti-politics without thinking too hard about whether I really believed it.

For in the end I don’t reject external goods; on that basic question I do stand closer to Nussbaum than to Śāntideva. Again, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have got married; the logical practical conclusion from Śāntideva’s thought is the monasticism which he himself practised. Some external goods are genuinely good. They can indeed be negative, as in the case of the hedonic treadmill; and in some cases their absence can strengthen us, as Śāntideva also claims and as I noted in an earlier post. But I do not think that this negativity is the norm – especially at the lower end of the social ladder, where governments are most likely to direct their help. External goods are often genuine goods, especially when they are what we often call “basic needs.”

In short, Śāntideva’s position on external goods – and therefore on political action – cannot be mine. So where do I stand? Well, I haven’t settled that yet. This is part of the reason I’ve lately been trying to explore the concept of altruism: the value of politics depends a lot on who we are ultimately trying to benefit. Should we aim for an enlightened self-interest, for the good of those close to us or whom we identify with, or universally for the good of all? Śāntideva takes the latter, universal position, in no uncertain terms. But I suspect he may be only able to do this because he devalues external goods, because the good of all is identified as their spiritual liberation. To value external goods and still seek the good of all is basically to be a utilitarian, a terribly frustrating and perhaps ultimately counterproductive way of life.