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I presented about Disengaged Buddhism at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in August. My talk was paired with a presentation by Frédéric Richard on a topic that did not initially appear to be related: the Tibetan government in exile. As it turned out, the papers proved fascinating mirror images of each other.

There are two different ways that the Disengaged Buddhists critique politics. One has to do with external goods: the sorts of goods that politics provides, like material goods and social status, is neutral or worse to our real well-being. The other, though, is about anger and ruthlessness. I think the most emblematic quote in this respect is this one from Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, which criticizes political engagement on both grounds:

As for the tradition that kings obtained final emancipation while remaining in their homes, this is not the case. How can the dharma of salvation [mokṣadharma] in which quietude [śama] predominates be reconciled with the dharma of kings [rājadharma] in which severity of action [taikṣṇya] predominates? If a king delights in quietude, his kingdom collapses; if his mind turns to his kingdom, his quietude is ruined. For quietude and severity are incompatible, like the union of water which is cold and fire which is hot. (Buddhacarita IX.48-49, Johnston translation)

Some Engaged Buddhists have claimed that “Buddhists have never accepted a dualistic split between ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ domains.” Here, by contrast, not only is a split between politics and liberation explicitly articulated, but the two domains are proclaimed incompatible. I don’t think this is big news to longtime readers of Love of All Wisdom, who have read my posts on Buddhist anti-politics; Buddhist anti-political tradition goes deep. And it’s not the purpose of this post to go back over that.

Rather, what is interesting to me is how ideas from my talk, like Aśvaghoṣa’s, resonated with very different ideas in Richard’s talk. Especially, what was new to me in that talk was Richard’s discussion of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a political organization lobbying for Tibetan independence – by violent means if necessary. Most of us are probably familiar with the present Dalai Lama’s explicit advocacy of a nonviolent struggle for independence. According to Richard, the TYC believes that Buddhism itself inhibits that struggle for independence, because of its nonviolence.

There are some questions of interpretation to be raised here. Recent work by Stephen Jenkins has questioned whether “nonviolence” per se is actually a traditional Buddhist idea; before Gandhi, the idea of ahiṃsā meant only “non-harm”, in a way that has some subtle but important differences. So the Dalai Lama’s “nonviolence” may be less traditional than we now think. But I think those are not the most important points in this context.

What is striking to me, rather, is how close the Tibetan Youth Congress’s views (as summarized by Richard) are to those of Aśvaghoṣa. The two advocate diametrically opposite paths of action – but what they agree on is that the paths are diametrically opposite! One can pursue Buddhist tranquility, or one can engage in the severity of politics – but pick one. They have very different views on which one we should pick, but can agree that either one is muddled if we try to have it both ways. To combine political action and the Buddhist quest for liberation is, on both their views, a vicious mean.

I am not sure I would go so far as they do. I suspect that it is possible to combine political action with the Buddhist path, as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh do. But I think Aśvaghoṣa and the TYC may well be right that the two inhibit each other. Combining the two is harder than we think; there are good reasons why people might seek only one path in its purity.

My own experience in recent years has confirmed this. A few years ago I told myself I could be politically engaged without anger – said so publicly, on this blog – but in the end I wound up as angry as ever. I have to agree with Aśvaghoṣa that political engagement is dangerous to our mental well-being, even when we already recognize that there is a danger.

And so too I think the Tibetan Youth Congress is probably on to something as well. Little is to be gained by gratuitous, indiscriminate violence, but many political goals may well require being violent at strategic points. And one may well need to be harsh and angry to make them happen. The American left seems to be a lot more energized now that it is so outraged – even though this does seem bad for its members’ own well-being.

It is tempting to boil this all down to a question of “Which one should we pick?” – which I think is exactly what Aśvaghoṣa and the TYC both do. In my youth I would have unhesitatingly chosen the TYC’s path in any conflict between them; now I lean more toward Aśvaghoṣa’s. Yet I do still think the best life might be found somewhere in the middle – but, and this is crucial, not just anywhere in the middle. It is easy, all too easy, to find oneself in a vicious mean, where one’s attempts at Buddhist tranquility make one less politically effective, and where one’s political anger interferes with one’s tranquility. I think I ended up there myself, for a while at least. It is much easier to choose one path and walk it exclusively. Yet to live the best life one can – a life that acknowledges joy while still reducing suffering – I think it might still be worth the grave risk of trying to combine the two. But if we are to do that successfully, we must remind ourselves that it is a risk, and remain ever vigilant of that risk.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.