In today’s interconnected world of morality and politics, it might not be useful to speculate on whether the Buddha was a moderate centrist, communist hippie or ranch-owning, gun-swinging neo-liberal. In theory, Buddhism is perhaps even more emphatic than liberal Western Christianity on keeping the separation of church and state (throughout history this was not the case, although at least the Buddha originally devolved political influence to his secular patron).

But globalization has changed everything.

…all the deeper and more profound was his shock at seeing the old, sick and dying.

We are being brought together like never before. As we grow ever more interconnected, Buddhists are realizing that a great deal of the systemic suffering perpetuated against people, such as war, exploitation, international slavery, and discrimination is the result of ideologies poisoned by greed, hatred and delusion. And whatever our political leanings, we cannot begin to alleviate suffering without combating the ideologies breeding it. The survival of our global ecology and environment depends on understanding political problems through three things: self-awareness, empathy, and mindfulness of interdependence.

No matter what one thinks of Occupy or the 1% versus the 99%, Buddhism cannot help but be on the side of the suffering and unprivileged because it begins from self-awareness. The more aware you are of your own privilege, surely your empathy with those less fortunate can only grow stronger. The Buddha was a privileged man, and therefore all the deeper and more profound was his shock at seeing the old, sick and dying. To just be brought up a happy child is a privilege because none of it is the result of one’s own work. Children do not have a happy life because they worked for it (that’s just absurd).

Self-sufficiency is important and needed, and many have achieved this.

It was their family that gave them a happy life. Their love was not loaned to them. I was brought up with almost nothing to worry about except making myself useful through work I would enjoy. That is a revoltingly bourgeoisie, middle-class occupation. I suspect if people could see just how much was built up for them by others, they would be much more careful about saying who “deserves” help and who “doesn’t”.

Self-awareness hopefully leads to empathy with other people’s situations and hardships. In all of this is an important call to be realistic. Self-sufficiency is important and needed, and many have achieved this. That is fine. I might have had a good job at some bank in the Square Mile and believed in self-sufficiency, and that God only helps those who help themselves.

Complete self-sufficiency is a lie…

But picture this: like so many others, I lose my job post-2008. Perhaps I go to apply for another job, only to find there are more applications than the job itself. My bills are going up, my mortgage or rent is unpaid. I might have always believed that supporting others was wrong, and that the philosophy of self-sufficiency was just. But for some reason, my ideology is not working for me under my current circumstances. Then I get cancer.

Many, through no fault of their own, need help to get back on two feet. It is the help that certain political persuasions do not want to give. We need to be on the side of those who need help. Complete self-sufficiency is a lie anyway, an illusion that too many of us buy into. No living being on this planet lives independently of air, water, food or clothing, so why should a human being, a social creature, be expected to live independently of others’ help and concern and love?

…the idea that God only helps those who help themselves is completely, theologically false.

Awareness of interdependence is as relevant to socio-economic justice as religious justice. Spiritual truths often point to political truths: we are never completely on our own, declared the Buddha. And the idea that God only helps those who help themselves is completely, theologically false. What happened to grace and freely given love?

 

About The Author

A journalist of religion, Raymond is the editor of Buddhistdoor International. He divides his time between London and Hong Kong and can be reached at raymond@buddhistdoor.com.

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