American Buddhist Values and the Practice of Enlightened Patriotism

Taigen Dan Leighton
From the Fall, 2004 "Turning Wheel," the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Copyright Taigen Dan Leighton, 2004

A number of Japanese Buddhist founders, including Saicho, Eisai, Dogen, and Nichiren, issued proclamations encouraging the spread of Buddhism in order to protect the nation. In a similar spirit, I wish to speak of the value of Buddhism to America's true national security. And conversely, I also wish to speak of the value of foundational American principles to the potential development of Buddhism in the United States. American maxims such as "liberty and justice for all" and the unalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" can be profound supports for the universal liberation espoused in the bodhisattva way.

This is a critical year in the history of the United States and the world, when the recklessness of our own government, counter to American foundational values, threatens not only our national security, but the well-being of humankind. For all people concerned about the welfare of future generations, Thomas Paine's stirring words in 1776 are now pertinent: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." In Buddhist terms, this is now a time for the patience, commitment, and effort of bodhisattvas.

The starting point of Buddhist life involves meditative awareness. In the Soto Zen tradition in which I practice, the basic meditation instruction is to turn the light within to focus on illuminating the conditioned self. Settling into uprightness, aware of our sensations, thoughts, and feelings, not turning away from our own confusion and grasping as they arise, we can uncover our deep connection with wholeness and calm. This inner balance is the starting point of our practice, and allows the transformative function of awakened awareness.

But if Buddhism were only about finding inner peace it would not have survived 2500 years, and would not deserve to survive today in the West. Buddha values must be applied in three realms. First is to this body and mind on our own seat. Indeed we must bring awareness, and forgiveness, to the confusion, fear, and sorrow inside our own conditioned skin bag.

The second realm of expression of meditative awareness is when we arise from our formal practice and return to our everyday activities, interacting with our friends, family, and co-workers. And we are challenged by the sufferings that arise to express dignified, helpful responsiveness.

But our Buddhist values must also be expressed to the third realm, the society around us. We express Buddha heart through precepts. In the bodhisattva way these precepts are not commandments, but guidelines to helpful activity. Considering which Buddhist guidelines may be relevant to the societal realm, I would start with non-harming (ahimsa in Sanskrit). We try not to hurt others, or ourselves, and also do what we can to help prevent others from inflicting harm on others. Closely related to that is the precept of not killing. Again, this means not only that we do not ourselves kill others, but also that we try to prevent killing by others. But all precepts, including both non-harming and not killing, can be stated positively as well. These precepts are reminders and encouragements to promote helpfulness, and to support life and vitality. We are reminded to care for our own energy and vitality, but also to support the vigor and gifts of our everyday associates: family, friends, and neighbors. Moreover, in the culture around us, this precept implies that we try to support the livelihood and growth of everyone in our society, and of beneficial cultural forms.

This leads to one of the most important precepts, to act to benefit All beings. This is the inclusive outlook of universal liberation, the goal of the bodhisattva way. And it is also the fundamental wish of the Metta Sutta from the earlier Pali tradition, "May all beings be happy. May they be joyful and live in safety." This guideline is strikingly in accord with foundational American principles of Liberty and Justice for all, of equal justice under the law, and of equal opportunity. These democratic principles help exemplify how to enact basic Buddhist aspirations in the world.

Another relevant Buddhist precept is not to lie. This implies speaking the truth, or what we can see of it from our limited and particular vantage points. We must humbly recognize that the fullness of reality goes beyond our own views. So speaking our truth includes listening to the views of others, really hearing their fears and concerns and insights. This precept also implies that we must at times be willing to tell truth (as we see it) to power. From such commitment grew the Truth Power of Gandhi's satyagraha. And the very concept of truth is now at risk in the United States, as our government and its corporate media apparatus master the technique of the big lie to justify and promote wars of aggression.

When Thomas Jefferson initiated the principle of separation of church and state for the United States, he never intended that we should not apply spiritual values to public life. We must use our principles to consider what is happening in our world, as indeed Jefferson did. But Jefferson was insisting that no one person (not even the President) should be empowered to speak to God for everyone. Nor can one person speak to or for Buddha for everyone. We each have the right to our own particular way of approaching the sacred.

The principles of liberty and justice for all, and the unalienable right of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" articulated by Jefferson and other founding fathers are highly synchronistic with Buddhist perspectives. Jefferson's writings remain a touchstone for these worthy principles, despite modern disclosures of his deplorable personal shortcomings, including not only slaveholding but probably fathering children with one of his slaves. Jefferson made some efforts toward abolition of slavery early in his career, but succumbed to the conditioning and economic imperatives of the slave plantation culture in which he was raised. Yet his enunciations of personal liberty for all still inform modern views of liberation, as do those of his contemporaries such as Paine and Patrick Henry. In his famous speech (Give me liberty or give me death) in 1775, Patrick Henry said, "In proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the Truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold?. Whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and provide for it."

Jefferson was thinking of the corruption of governments and the need for sustained public oversight when he said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Slightly altering Jefferson's saying to "the price of liberation is eternal vigilance," we find an incisive Buddhist motto. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness represents another mode of ongoing vigilance. Shakyamuni Buddha did not finish his work upon awakening. Rather, the Buddhist order began with his liberation, and he himself continued ongoing meditation practice throughout his life. Similarly, Buddhist devotees, in whatever age, must remain vigilant in order to help suffering beings. Practically speaking, one must continually attend to one's own inner intentions and habitual patterns. Insights into these habit patterns may be transformative, but are not usually sufficient to eradicate them. Our humanity includes the recurrence of personal shortcomings.

Jefferson also declared that he "vowed eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The practice of vow is also central to awakening practice. The traditional four bodhisattva vows are to save all sentient beings, to cut through all delusive afflictions, to enter all pathways to Dharma, and to realize the Buddha way. These inconceivable vows cannot be enacted based on rational or intellectual calculations. But they are supported by vigilant attention to our conduct and awareness, dedication to helpfulness, and humble familiarity with our own limitations.

One of the most fundamental principles of Buddhism is non-separation. We are deeply interconnected with all beings. This philosophical teaching of interconnectedness becomes realistic and practical as we realize that what happens to people in the Middle East deeply affects people in California, Delaware, or South Dakota. All people in the world are the same in having needs and feelings, in wanting to love and be loved. And so truly inclusive patriotism, dedicated to universal freedom, would not make anybody into some evil other. From a Buddhist viewpoint, there are indeed evil actions, and the perpetrators must be held accountable. However, there is no group of people whom we can label as "Evil-Doers," deserving of being bombed or tortured. We must realize our own human tendency to make others into bad guys, so that we can feel that we are the Good. Now, after seeing the pictures from Abu Ghraib, we know that "Torturers Are Us." Americans too can become torturers. Depending on the combination of circumstances (including the current documented pattern of encouragement of torture by governmental higher-ups), we all share the human capacity to commit torture and humiliation against innocent detainees, or else, in other circumstances, to be as selfless as Mother Theresa.

The Buddhist ideal of universal awakening is supported by the American democratic principles of liberty and justice for all, equal justice under the law, and the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And these American ideals are enhanced, in turn, by the Buddhist ideal: May all beings be happy. There can be no true peace and justice, or happiness, which is not somehow shared with all people. True national security cannot be forever maintained through the oppression of peoples we designate as "other." Jefferson wisely insisted on changing the Declaration of Independence from an earlier draft advocating "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." Buddhist teachings can help us find deeper meaning to happiness and contentment than mere acquisitive consuming of property and commodities. But unfortunately, in its current massive corruption, our government seems to pursue not happiness for all people, but profits for all of its own corporate sponsors.

My concern with our national situation arises from responsibility to spiritual precepts and values. It is not at all a matter of Republican or Democrat, nor of the increasingly meaningless labels "conservative" or "liberal." When asked in questionnaires, I self-identify as a conservative, because I wish to help conserve such American principles as "equal justice under the law" and the Bill of Rights; to help conserve the natural environment and the preservation of non-human species of beings; and to help conserve worthy ancient spiritual traditions. I feel no more "liberal" about accepting oppression of rights and freedom than did Thomas Paine.

I agree with conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan who has expressed sincere concern that Americans apparently now have a fundamental disagreement about the very nature of morality and truth. One version of this split might be stated: Should immorality in our country be defined by a singer exposing her breast at the Super Bowl, or by a president lying about weapons of mass destruction to start a war for the sake of his friends' massive war profiteering and extremist ideologies?

In 1791, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest." In the same year, Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, "That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord, and cultivate prejudices between nations, it becomes more unpardonable." Later, in 1816, Jefferson wrote of his concern, "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Now that such corporations write the laws and their own regulatory protocols, sustained vigilance will indeed be required to restore the objective rule of law.

I hope all Buddhist citizens of the United States will exercise the practice of voting this November, in what may well be the most important election in American history. But even if we change our current corrupt administration, we need an open, long-term national dialogue about spiritual values. True freedom requires that we as Buddhists, from the various traditions, express our values, just as diverse Christians and those of other religions express their truths. To have an open discussion we must actually hear each other, not assuming that we have all the answers, and that God (or Buddha) is only on Our Side. Only with open discussion can this become a Pure Land in the Buddhist sense, a land of the free and home of the brave, rather than a land of the fearful and a home of torturers.

Another Buddhist precept that we would do well to heed is not to harbor anger, sometimes translated as not to get angry. But attraction and aversion are wired into our being as deeply as protons and electrons. One Mahayana commentary says that not to get angry when it is appropriate also violates the precept, or, to quote the bumper-sticker, "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention." But harboring anger until it turns into grudge is unproductive and self-corrosive. From such grudges grow endless cycles of vengeance, which can result in religious wars. Ultimate transformation and universal liberation cannot come from hatred or from seeing some particular group of persons as the enemy, but only from deep education about the true values of kindness, cooperation, and non-separation.

Our expression of spiritual values will only be helpful when informed by our return to inner work to find dignified calm and wholeness. Then we can present our views without stridency, in the context of actual dialogue and illuminated values. Such enlightened patriotism depends on including all beings, and on fearless openness to truth.

Expanded version of a talk given June 5, 2004 at Buddhist Peace Fellowship's "Change Your Mind Day", at the Ellipse in front of the White House, Washington, D.C. This article includes some material from an essay, "Buddhism in the West and Liberation as Eternal Vigilance" published in "Dharma World" magazine, Japan.