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Taigen Dan Leighton
Article for the Journal “Bridges: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theology, Philosophy, History, and Science” Volume 13, number 3/4; Fall/Winter 2006; “The Value of Buddhism for Contemporary Western Society”

In many ways the founding principles of the United States are highly complementary and supportive for the values of Mahayana Buddhism, the approach of the bodhisattva in the Buddhism of North Asia, including Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan Buddhism. The ideal of the Mahayana bodhisattva or enlightening being, who is dedicated to universal liberation, fostering relief from suffering, and entry into the path of awakening for all beings, is mutually informative and has good prospects for flowering in a culture dedicated to equal justice under the law; the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and government of, by, and for the people.

The Mahayana values are expressed in the bodhisattva ethical precepts and in transcendent practices such as generosity, patient tolerance, energetic persistence, meditative stability, skillful means directed at the needs of the diversity of beings, and insightful, intuitive wisdom. The bodhisattva further takes on “inconceivable” vows to liberate all beings, to cut through all delusion, to use all situations to help beings enter into the awakened reality, and fully to express awakening. These and other principles are expansively enumerated in the vast corpus of Mahayana sutras or scriptures.1 All these values can be seen as the unfolding of taking refuge in Buddha, in many branches of Buddhism a fundamental initiation ritual. Through sustained turning towards or taking refuge in Buddha, one may learn to trust one’s own innermost wellness. Among the bodhisattvas’ central ideals are the commitments to not harm, to support life and vitality rather than killing, societally as well as interpersonally, and to include all beings in their purview. The radical inclusivity of care for all beings without exception, even beyond anthropocentrism, has special relevance to modern environmental concerns.

Through its history in Asia, the bodhisattva ideal has most often been addressed to the well-being of individuals, or of the community of practitioners (sangha), or to the community of the wider populace in a locale, or to a sometimes abstract, cosmic sense of all beings in the universe. It only rarely was applied to the political systems of Asian countries, or, when it was, this was most often addressed to supporting the feudal lords who were also often the patrons who supported Buddhist establishments. Of course there have been many exceptions to these broad generalizations, but more frequently it was applied harmfully, as in the support for militarism of many Japanese Buddhists in the lead-up and during World War II.2

However, we can also see in the inception of the Buddhist order of monks and nuns by the historical Buddha in fifth-century B.C.E. India an intention to reform society over time by providing an ongoing counter-cultural alternative to the usual worldly greed, hatred, and confusion of the societal systems. Unavoidably, Buddhist institutions historically have been susceptible to corruption and self-serving policies like all other human social endeavors. Similarly, the noble ideals of the United States founding fathers (many of whom were after all slave-owners) have never yet been enacted fully. But before exploring some of the areas where Buddhism can be helpful to present realities, it is important to acknowledge the possibilities implicit in the ideals on each side, and see their deep compatibility.

As severely threatened as these democratic ideals are today (of which more below), the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclamation that “all men (sic) are created equal,” and that all are endowed with “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” provides a strong foundation for a society in which bodhisattva intentions might flourish. Even if those for whom such rights were initially intended were only propertied males, such language was instrumental to the eventual ban on slavery and enfranchisement of women. In addition, the Constitution’s Preamble decreed as its purpose to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” with its Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the rights of the accused, including to speedy trials, defense counsel, and to face opposing witnesses. These rights and ideals all offer an infrastructure that is remarkably supportive of the bodhisattvic principle of including and considering all beings as unalienably endowed with Buddha nature.

This prospective positive context is potentially highly informative to the transformations of Mahayana Buddhism in its spread to the West. There are portions of the Mahayana legacy that are indeed relevant to societal contexts. Examples may be found, for instance, in the bodhisattva practice instructions and diverse exemplars in the lofty Flower Ornament Avatamsaka Sutra, and historically in the lore about the Indian King Ashoka of the third century B.C.E., who, after waging bloody wars to unite the Indian subcontinent, became a benevolent sponsor of Buddhism and societal well-being, including environmental protection, vegetarianism, and nonviolence.3 But the traditional resources for constructing a modern bodhisattva societal ethic do seem limited. Current academics concerned with social ethics have been considering and questioning the development of samurai Zen in Japan and the wider East Asian Buddhist history of accommodation to the powers of the day. Relevant reflections have included the historical role of Confucian ethics in complementing and being accepted by East Asian Buddhism; the problematical relationship (or perhaps lack thereof) between enlightenment and ethics; the Buddhist tradition’s sometimes inadequate expression of the bodhisattva ethos of compassion; and the questions and potential resources for Western Buddhism transforming an East Asian tradition to contexts with modernist ethical assumptions.4 Amid such concerns, American democratic ideals have much to offer to modern practitioners looking to construct a relevant bodhisattva social ethic.

And yet, Buddhism in response has resources and perspectives to offer to Western social concerns. A primary stimulus for the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West in the last half of the twentieth century, and today, has been the physical practices and technologies of introspective calm and stability offered by various Buddhist meditation teachings. In the active and ongoing dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, Christians have benefited by extensive experience of Buddhist meditation practice, such that venerable Catholic contemplative traditions have been revived, with contemplative teachings and practices from the Desert Fathers, the Benedictine Order, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Centering prayer, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Cloud of Unknowing, to name a few, now much more commonly available in the Church than they were a decade or two ago. In exchange, some “engaged” Buddhists have been enriching bodhisattva perspectives through dialogue about the social justice mission still visible in Christianity. A similar exchange is possible between Buddhism and American democratic values and “civil religion.”

For Western political and societal decision makers, experience of Buddhist meditative stability can help develop a wider capacity for creative response. Sustained meditation practice provides a subtler awareness of one’s own mental workings. This allows one to more patiently listen to others and to oneself, and appreciate nuances. With such awareness one need not react out of stale habit patterns, but might respond from wider perspectives and fresh possibilities.

In many sectors of American government, Buddhist meditation has indeed become an adjunct activity for developing settledness for those who face pressure situations. For example, some cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy have been participating in a Buddhist meditation group there for eight years. The major who leads the group, himself a student of a reputable Zen teacher, says, “I take one of these young people, and I strap their butts to a $40 million jet with nukes on the wings’they need to be grounded.”5 Thus meditation can develop helpful grounding for decision-makers and for those responsible for implementing their decisions.

Aside from its stabilizing function, both Buddhist teaching and meditative experience convey a sense of interconnectedness that sees the commonalities and mutual interests between people who are supposedly disparate. The truth of this fundamental Buddhist teaching of interconnectedness is readily discernable in the modern world in which people can see how events across the globe can strongly impact them, and where the effects of global climate change threaten all. Seeing the “other” as not separate can encourage cooperation and open communication, and discourage succumbing to suspicion, name-calling, and resultant cycles of recrimination, and even violent retribution.

Bodhisattva precepts support life rather than killing; generosity rather than grabbing or theft; speaking truth to power rather than lying; avoiding turning anger into grudge or vengeance; and clear awareness rather than submitting to the intoxication and distractions so tantalizingly encouraged by our consumerist, high-tech culture. Again, one of the most important bodhisattva precepts in this discussion is the commitment to benefit all beings. This implies sympathetic concern even for people who speak Spanish or Arabic, rather than building walls to keep them out, or putting them in torture camps. The fundamental American democratic ideal of liberty and justice for all, and the bodhisattva ideal of benefiting all beings are strongly mutually supportive.

Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood is an early Buddhist value with strong implications and relevance that may enhance the practical implementation of American ideals. Right Livelihood appears as part of the Eightfold Path, which is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, the most fundamental of Buddha’s teachings. These four are first, the truth of suffering (dukkha), which might more accurately be translated as dissatisfactoriness. This refers to the fact that we do not have things we want, and do have things we do not want. Etymologically dukkha derives from a wheel that is off kilter with its axle, thus denoting that things are out of alignment. The second noble truth is that there is a cause for the first truth, such misalignment is not random and chaotic, but our afflictions are caused due to grasping after objects of desire or aversion, leading to harmful objectification of people and the world.

The third noble truth is the good news, that there is an end to suffering, or our affliction from fundamental misalignments. Even if there is not an end to old age, sickness, and death, we can stop causing more harm, and let go of our anxieties. This leads to the fourth noble truth, the eightfold path, which like the lists of transcendent practices and bodhisattva precepts mentioned above, provides practical guidance in how to live with awareness and compassion, and to implement the third truth of the end of suffering. Along with Right Livelihood, these eight are Right View, Thought, Speech, Action, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. Right Livelihood originally referred to not pursuing a harmful occupation, such as trading in arms or other weapons, intoxicants, or killing animals, or making a living through deception or cheating others.6

The spirit of right livelihood is to support oneself and one’s family by means that are not harmful, but helpful to others and oneself. This implies having some knowledge of the consequences of one’s work. It also requires an activity in accord with precepts, such as supporting life rather than killing, generosity rather than theft, truthfulness instead of lies, and hopefully that reflects respect for all beings. From a deeper perspective on right livelihood, people should have some means to support themselves through meaningful activity that allows them the human integrity and uprightness of employing their interests and abilities with vitality and creative energy to contribute constructively to their communities. Even for “menial” or humble service jobs, according to this value, workers would have the right to fulfill their tasks with dignity.

From the perspective of right livelihood, such labor should be one of the guaranteed, unalienable rights implied by “life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence. In a modern context we can see this right livelihood in societal terms. People who exercise their unalienable right to work with diligence and honesty should be able to support themselves and their families through their work. The modern “living wage” movement is an attempt to support this ideal, asking that all who work fully be supported at a minimal level sufficient to insure livelihood. This is reasonable in a society that claims that all beings are endowed with the unalienable right to life (along with liberty and happiness).

The principle of Right Livelihood can be further applied to societal systems and to examination of economic and social organization. The original Buddhist right livelihood ideal implies strong disapproval of all war and violence, with its sanction against work involving weaponry. So how does right livelihood apply to Air Force Academy cadets engaging in Buddhist meditation” Buddhism certainly has a preference for nonviolence and resolving international conflicts through diplomatic mediation rather than aggression. But in the realities of the modern, post-Nazi Holocaust world (no less than the “post-9/11 world”), contemporary Buddhists may well acknowledge the necessity for military forces to be used for genuine self-defense, to resist hostile occupations, and as peace-keeping forces in situations where genocide is being committed. I may deeply wish for nuclear disarmament, but in the meantime, I am very glad that our Air Force pilots have training in the stabilization of meditation. Further, professional soldiers trained in self-reflection and insight practices are also more likely to have the spiritual fortitude to resist if ordered to commit acts contrary to international conventions about war and war crimes.

But modern American society has a larger problem with right livelihood, related to our excessive consumerist culture and over-consumption. In our mainstream media, thanks to consumerism, the fundamental values are greed, material acquisition, and even vengeance. All the television commercials and other advertisements are very skillfully designed to create more needs and desires than can ever be fully satisfied. Based on the values of consumerism, the advertising and entertainment industries very skillfully distract people from being present in their bodies and minds, aiming to intoxicate them and increase desires and cravings, in effect producing hungry ghosts.

This state in which beings are never satisfied is described in Buddhism as the realm of Hungry Ghosts, who are depicted with tiny throats and huge stomachs that can never be filled, a very sad situation. The Hungry Ghost realm is one of six into which a being can be born. The other reams include the human, heavenly, animal, and hell realms. These realms are also considered psychological descriptions of potential aspects of inner life. In the ideals of consumerism, self-fulfillment is based on how much is consumed, an often unquestioned and unconscious value of American society. This grasping counters the basic Buddhist value, in accord with the second of the four noble truths, to be content with present possessions and to enjoy and engage this world as it is. Thus from the principle of right livelihood, work that furthers consumerist insatiability might be considered much more harmful than that of honorable military professionals, for example.

Unlike the ideals of the founding fathers, American consumerism can harm Buddhist seekers who approach spiritual practice as yet another commodity to consume. Mass media train people to want the best, quickest, and fanciest of everything. Some who travel to visit different meditation centers and teachers may seek the quickest path or the best teacher, the fast track to enlightenment. This consumerist approach to Buddhism is not helpful and imbalanced, leading usually to more desire and grasping. In the “middle way” of Buddhism, the alternative to consumerism is not to give away all one’s property, but to use one’s resources to sustain attention constructively to the situations in this world and life, in one’s everyday activities, without reinforcing a sense of neediness.

The historical and karmic legacy of the United States has produced more conflicts with the principle of right livelihood than consumerism. Thomas Jefferson’s writings, in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere, provide a rich resource for American ideals highly compatible with Buddhist practice. Jefferson was thinking of the corruption of governments and the crucial need for sustained public oversight when he said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” The American ideals of political freedom might seem feeble to some Buddhist devotees compared with total liberation and freedom from inner greed, hatred, and delusion. However, slightly altering Jefferson’s saying to “the price of liberation is eternal vigilance,” produces a very cogent Buddhist motto.

Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditative awareness form another manner of ongoing vigilance. Buddhism did not end with Shakyamuni Buddha’s unsurpassed complete awakening. Rather, the Buddhist order began with the Buddha’s liberation, and he himself continued ongoing meditation practice throughout his life. Similarly, for Buddhist practitioners in whatever age, the work of liberation from karmic hindrances and for the sake of helping all suffering beings involves sustaining the gaze of vigilant attention, including at their own shortcomings. Jefferson also declared that he vowed “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” This mirrors the Buddhist practice of vow or commitment, also central to awakening practice. Unfettered expression of insight and kindness, whether in the personal or societal realm, requires dedication and persistence.

Jefferson’s writings remain a touchstone for these worthy principles, despite modern disclosures of his deplorable personal failings, including not only slaveholding, but probably his having fathered children with one of his slaves. And yet, his enunciations of personal liberty for all, along with those of some of his contemporaries such as Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin, remain informative to modern principles of liberation. Armed by their democratic principles, these men demonstrated noble fearlessness in their opposition to King George. Thanks to awakening teaching and experience, bodhisattva practitioners may also respond without hindrance from their fears. However, while Jefferson made some efforts towards the abolition of slavery early in his career, he did succumb to the conditioning and economic imperatives of the slave plantation culture in which he was raised. In his later years he was personally totally dependent on his slaves for his livelihood.

However, according to the principle of right livelihood, modern Americans have no grounds for feeling morally superior to Jefferson. A more recent American president, Dwight Eisenhower, uttered an eerily prescient warning in his farewell address in January 1961, concerning the then new “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” In the spirit of Jefferson’s eternal vigilance, Eisenhower continued, “Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”7

The point of this warning concerning right livelihood is not merely that a weapons industry exists. But the current domination over the American economy and government by arms corporations, and their overwhelming lobbying of legislators, as warned against by Eisenhower, has resulted in a situation where policy is made at the service of weapons manufacturing, rather than vice versa. With all congressional districts impacted by potential base closures, regardless of the viewpoints of each constituency, all are dependent on military spending and the missile economy, like Jefferson was dependent on slavery. The waging of preemptive wars of aggression and proliferation of dangerous weaponry in space, along with nuclear proliferation among unstable countries, all go unchecked as weapons manufacturing gains dominance, and much other more constructive American manufacturing is shipped overseas to sites of cheap, and often slave labor. In this situation right livelihood is an ethical and moral model for assessing a society’s livelihood as well as an individual’s, and may serve in many ways as a principle for the renewal of foundational American ideals.

The Current Situation

I cannot write about these venerable principles, from two millennia ago more or less for the bodhisattvas, and two hundred thirty years ago from Thomas Jefferson and his associates, and disregard the fact that I write this a week after the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 by the United States Congress. The democratic ideals of the founding fathers are now more severely threatened than at any time in American history. To cite one description by U.C. Irvine professor Mark LeVine, this new bill “guts the right of habeas corpus, legalizes the use of secret and coerced evidence, ‘clarifies’ the Geneva Conventions to allow torture on [the president’s] command, prevents future war crimes prosecutions, and arrogates to himself the right to declare anyone–including American citizens–enemy combatants who can be dragged from their families, thrown in any prison he chooses, anywhere on earth, for however long he chooses [with no recourse to lawyers or courts].”8 The foundational American principles I have been celebrating, such as equal justice under the law, and government of, by, and for the people, are now in effect “quaint” historical relics, as the current attorney general designates the Geneva Conventions and international human rights laws.

I have discussed how these suddenly quaint democratic principles, such as checks and balances, freedom of speech, and habeas corpus, can support and inform a bodhisattvic response to societal concerns. I would suggest that even the fact that we can remember these democratic American principles (never perfectly enacted), remains an enduring resource for beneficial activity.

What is an appropriate bodhisattvic response? First, all can resolutely speak the truth they see. Buddhism is about awareness and caring. Nobody knows what will restore and renew traditional American values of governance and societal concern and fairness. But Buddhist teaching and experience demonstrates that awareness has transformative power. There is never only one right response. Rather, awareness informed by concern for harmlessness, the benefit of all beings, and support for life instead of repressing and increasing anger, can allow readiness to express creative and helpful responses.

Hopelessness, though available, is not an appropriate or accurate response. Buddhism teaches that all actions have consequences, everything changes, and none can foretell how transformation will arise, either personally or socially. After much effort, South African Apartheid ended, seemingly suddenly and relatively nonviolently; similarly the Berlin Wall fell. This too shall pass, unfortunately with much devastation likely in its wake. Concern for right livelihood, on all levels, will help.

1 For overviews of Mahayana values, practices, imagery, scriptures, and philosophy, see Taigen Dan Leighton, Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression, Revised edition (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003); Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy: An Introduction to the Canonical Literature of Buddhism (London: Tharpa Publications, 1985); and Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London: Routledge, 1989).

2 See the indictment of the Japanese Zen establishment in Brian Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997).

3 See Thomas Cleary, trans., The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Boston: Shambhala, 1984-1993); and John Strong, The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), or Akira Hirakawa. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Såkyamuni to Early Mahåyåna, Paul Groner, trans. and ed. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990).

4 See, for example, Thomas Kasulis, Dale Wright, Jin Park, and Christopher Ives, “The Contemplation of Social Activism: Prospects and Resources for Zen Social Ethics,” with response by John Maraldo and introduction by Taigen Dan Leighton, in Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol. 13, 2006.

5 Scott Armstrong, “A Well-Grounded Air Force,” Buddhadharma, Fall, 2006, p. 88.

6 Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, revised edition (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1974) p. 47.

7 Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, pp. 1035-1040.

8 Mark A. LeVine, “The Death of the First American Republic”