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Jack LaytonIt will not do my readers much of a service to announce that Jack Layton has died. To non-Canadian readers, the name will probably mean little or nothing; Canadian readers in the past week will have heard of little else.

Jack Layton was the leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, the only political party whose candidates I have ever voted for. He died of cancer on 22 August, at the relatively young age of 61 – at the peak of his career. Until Layton took over the NDP, the party had never received more than 44 of the roughly 300 seats in the Canadian Parliament. Earlier this year, under his leadership, the party earned over 100, most of those in Québec – where the party had never held more than a single seat before. It received more than twice as many seats as the third-place Liberals, a party which had governed Canada so often that it viewed itself as the “natural governing party.” And a great deal of this rapid rise derived from Layton’s personal popularity. His funeral has now been receiving coverage in Canada comparable to that of Princess Diana’s – at a time when it is held as a commonplace that people hate politicians and are fed up with them. His life and death moved a great many. My American wife, who a year ago didn’t know who Jack Layton was, was moved to tears watching the coverage of his memorials.

Now why am I going on about Jack Layton on a philosophy blog? Because Layton, as far as I can see, lived a tremendously good life. It’s not just that he managed to accomplish a great deal – both for the NDP across Canada and for the city of Toronto in his earlier days as a city councillor. Many politicians do that; that’s why one enters politics, if one has any decency. Rather, it’s that Layton accomplished all this while retaining both his integrity and his happiness – not the pleasure of triumphing over one’s enemies, but the joy of being engaged in a meaningful, intrinsically motivating activity. Even when Layton first took over the NDP and it still seemed a spent force, several commenters dubbed him “Smilin’ Jack,” for the facial expression that he wore even in the cut and thrust of a televised debate.

And Layton has made me think more about the flip side of the anti-political views I have often discussed here. The past decade, for me, was filled with anger, bile, hatred at the terrible things happening in the country around me. Buddhism of various kinds was deeply valuable for me because it saved me from politics. First, my youthful reading in Pali Buddhism provided a satisfying alternative to the misery of a life based in political utilitarianism. Then my dissertation work on Śāntideva helped remind me how one could justify a life consciously disregarding politics. And probably most importantly, the karmic redirection at my Goenka meditation retreat vividly pointed out the anger and hatred choking my soul during the Bush days.

In all these realms, what I found most valuable about Buddhism was that it provided an alternative to the hatred, bitterness, resentment and anger that to me had always characterized political engagement. And how could they not have, I thought, for a left-winger whose entire life was spent during the global ascent of the political right? Thus I’ve long harboured a deep suspicion toward the Engaged Buddhist movement, which combines Buddhism with political activism. It’s not that Engaged Buddhism is such a departure from historical Buddhist tradition (though in many ways I think it is); I’ve defended such departures and continue to do so. Rather, it’s that Engaged Buddhists can turn us away from one of the most valuable lessons that Buddhism has to offer, and the one it offered me.

Layton provided a different way. In his final days, when it seemed less likely that he would make it, he wrote a public letter that closed with these memorable words:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Here, the rejection of anger is itself the starting point for political activism. So too a rejection of fear – the fear I grew up with, the fear of Reagan’s military buildups, of Mulroney‘s budget cuts and trade agreements, of Bush’s incompetence and reckless spending and military adventurism. These words, these thoughts, these emotions are quite different from those of most of the activists I have known, perhaps above all my young self.

As for Engaged Buddhists: perhaps not surprisingly, the style of their activism varies greatly. The monastic serenity of Thich Nhat Hanh, while far removed from Jack Layton’s familial bonhomie, shares Layton’s generosity of spirit, insisting (as Goenka did) on compassion even towards one’s enemies, and attempting to live such a gentle worldview. On the other hand, I have seen many Engaged Buddhists express their politics with exactly the kind of contempt and anger that made me turn away from politics in the first place. It would be rude to name the names of those I have known personally, but as a public figure I will name Gary Snyder, whose 1969 Smokey the Bear Sutra is as antithetical as can be to anything genuinely Buddhist. The problem is not Snyder’s attempt to move Buddhists to environmental concern, nor his (creative and funny) use of the figure of Smokey the Bear. Rather, it is the poem’s shameful celebration of violence, war and hate:

Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him… HE WILL PUT THEM OUT….. And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:





And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surely appear to put the enemy out with his vajra-shovel.

One could say here that Nhat Hanh is more committed to Buddhism than to engagement, and vice versa about Snyder; but the important thing is that Nhat Hanh, unlike Snyder, does make the combination possible, putting together political activism with a genuinely Buddhist compassion, gentleness and patient endurance. (I note that Layton remained a committed member of the liberal United Church of Canada, and regularly wrote about his commitments; how much of Layton’s generous temperament came from his faith, I can’t say.)

I continue to defend the politically disengaged life. I don’t think activism is a constitutive part of human well-being, and I remain suspicious of those who say that it is. But Jack Layton’s life was a beautiful reminder that political participation and good human lives are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. Layton’s life was a very good one, not merely in spite of his political engagement, but in many respects because of it.