Engaged buddhists too often lean progressive because they don’t understand the fundamental nature of the state that they rely on.
Western Buddhists often embrace political progressivism, calling for more state action–for more laws and regulations–to address problems such as economic inequality, sexism and racism, and environmental degradation.
They shouldn’t. Not because their political and social concerns aren’t legitimate or aren’t worth taking action to address, but because the very nature of the state–the way it does the things it does and the way it finances doing them–places the state itself in opposition to the core teachings of Buddhism. By seeking to use government as a means to achieve their desired ends, progressive Buddhists take actions, or encourage others to take actions, expressly prohibited by the Buddha’s ethics.
A Summary of Buddhist Ethics
Buddhism is typically thought of as a religion, the fourth largest in the world, but the label is a bit misleading, especially to westerners used to Abrahamic faiths. The core of Buddha’s philosophy, as presented in the earliest extant texts, is an examination of the human condition through a carefully developed analysis of the causes of our suffering, and a path for alleviating it in the form of practical advice that draws only on our own resources and abilities. This analysis and advice is grounded entirely in our own natural characteristics and abilities, and does not depend on the support, judgement, or even existence of supernatural traits or beings. Thus Buddhism as a philosophical system looks more like Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Aristotelianism than it does Christianity or Judaism or Islam.
So what are those ethics? Very briefly, the Buddha said that our lives are plagued by dukkha–which is often translated as “suffering,” but also means “stress” or “unsatisfactoriness.” His strategy for dealing with dukkha took the form of the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is the existence of dukkha, the second is knowledge of its cause. Dukkha results from obvious sources, such as painful experiences or the ending of happy and desirable ones. But it also arises more subtly from conditioned existence, from the fact that everything is impermanent and changing, a collection of constantly shifting aggregates, and so lacks a permanent essence. Even us. Thirsting for and grasping at permanent essence where it doesn’t exist leads to suffering. The third truth tells us that there is a way of ending dukkha, and the fourth sets out the path for doing so.
It’s from this fourth Noble Truth that Buddhism gives us a system of ethics: a set of rules and principles to live by and put into practice if we want to achieve happiness by escaping dukkha. Buddhists have a robust theory of causality, and it places much weight on the character of our intentional actions, or karma. The fourth Noble Truth sets out the Eightfold Path, the conduct leading to the end of suffering. Following the Eightfold Path is thus the core of Buddhist ethics.
The items in the Path fall into three general categories: Virtue (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood), Meditation (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration), and Wisdom (Right View, Right Resolve). Thus happiness–an end to dukkha–comes from cultivating virtue and wisdom and developing the skill of meditation. Meditation helps with developing and deepening virtue and wisdom, but also provides insight into the nature of life and of reality itself.
Our focus here is on “Right Action,” which deals with how we should conduct ourselves in the world and in our interactions with others. It is from Right Action that we get the Five Precepts , the basic rules by which every Buddhist, whether monk or layperson, must abide if he or she wants to walk the path and achieve an end to dukkha.
to abstain from taking life
to abstain from taking what is not given
to abstain from sensuous misconduct
to abstain from false speech
to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind
For our purposes here, the first two are of particular importance. To understand why, to understand the deep conflict between Buddhist ethics and most political action, we need to first have a clear picture of just what government is. We need to understand the very nature of the state.
The Nature of the State
My argument isn’t that progressive Buddhists don’t understand Buddhism. Rather, it’s that progressive Buddhists go wrong in their politics because they don’t understand the fundamental nature of the state.
It’s important to be clear about just what the state is and so what it means to ask the state to take actions or to use government to enact political goals. Unfortunately, most of us don’t think much about this, and so treat government as simply a means for realizing our political dreams, as a tool that can reliably be employed whenever a problem’s been identified–especially when that problem involves some people not doing what we think they really ought to be doing.
What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an institution’s being a state? There are two.
First, states possess the authority to issue commands, which entails the right to use violence or threats of violence to compel us to obey, or to punish us if we refuse. In other words, states pass and enforce laws, and every law is a permission to employ violent force in a specific instance.
You might be skeptical here. When the legislature passes a bill saying cigarettes can’t be sold to anyone under the age of eighteen, or that we need to stop using incandescent light bulbs in order to protect the environment, what does that have to do with violence? The answer is so mundane that few of us ever think about it, even as we live in a society subject to more laws and regulations than any of us could read in our lifetimes.
To understand why all laws are ultimately about violence, simply ask what happens when someone disobeys? What happens if I use incandescent light bulbs or if I sell cigarettes to a minor? If I’m caught, I might face a fine, which doesn’t appear to be a violent act. But why am I motivated to pay the fine? What if I don’t want to? If, again, I refuse, I’ll be asked to show up in court. Refuse again and police will come to my door and arrest me. Refuse again and they will use force to bring me in. Resist that force and they will forcibly subdue me or, if I fight back enough, kill me. This same chain exists for every law, for every regulation, rule, and government policy. Underlying all of them is a threat of violent retaliation for disobedience, a threat that must be back up by the application of actual violence, or the threat will be hollow and laws will instead become suggestions.
The second of the two necessary and sufficient features of states is taxation. Making and enforcing laws requires resources. We need people to take on the roles of legislatures and police, we need to provide them with buildings to work in and equipment to use, and we need to pay them so they can afford to carry out their roles. So states need money, and the way they get it is by taking it from their citizens.
Note that this is different from the way other organizations and individuals raise funds. If I’d like money from you, I have two legitimate and permissible options. I can ask you for money (donations) or I can give you something you value in exchange for the money (trade). The “legitimate and permissible” qualifier cuts off a third option: I can’t take the money from you against your will (theft). Buddhism stands united with the other major ethical and spiritual traditions of the world in condemning theft, whether or not a state happens to exist to enforce any laws against it.
Theft is always a possibility, of course, but it’s one we reject and believe to be grounds for punishment. But here we get to the key feature of taxation that sets it apart from what you or I can do to acquire money. For the rule saying I need to give a certain portion of my income to the state every year is a law, and, as we saw above, laws are ultimately backed by violence or the threat of violence. Many people believe that we owe the state our taxes and that it is wrong to not pay them. But some don’t, believing that the amount asked for is too high or that the uses to which the money will be put (such as conducting wars) are immoral. In such cases, taxes simply are taking money against the will of its possessor.
Thus every state does, at the very least, two things: It threatens and employs violence against living beings, and it takes money from people that they did not give freely. These features ought to look familiar from our discussion of the precepts above–and they ought to be deeply troubling to Buddhists.
The Problem with “Legitimate” Violence and Taking
By definition and necessity, states kill and take. But here anyone who isn’t an anarchist adds that they do so legitimately. There is said to be something about states–about their features or their origin or their procedures–that makes this killing and taking legitimate and grants them the authority to do it, when the rest of us would be condemned if we acted similarly. There is a deep philosophical literature on this question of legitimacy, one going back to Plato and continuing in robust conversation today. And there are interesting and powerful arguments to be made on both sides.
But none of that should matter to a Buddhist striving to live in accord with Buddhist ethics because Buddhist ethics, in the clear language of the precepts, rejects a “legitimacy” qualifier on its prohibitions against violence and taking what is not freely given. As scholar‐monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes , “The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less‐than‐honest rationalizations. An action either fits in with the precepts or it doesn’t.”
Don’t kill means don’t kill. Don’t take what’s not freely given means don’t take what’s not freely given. Stories we might tell to justify such acts, including appeals to their utility, or their necessity in order to prevent bad outcomes, or their centrality to justice, can’t overcome the simple fact that the precepts feature “no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Thus the state, at its very core, engages in–and must engage in–actions that violate the first two precepts. When we ask the state to act on our behalf, we are asking the men and women who make up government to behave in ways incompatible with Buddhist practice. In fact, given our democratic system where the people direct the government, we aren’t just asking. When we successfully pass a law, when we cause a new regulation to be enacted, or when we vote for a tax increase, we are ordering people within government to violate the precepts on our behalf.
Indirectness and Intent
One objection to this conclusion would be to point out that the political Buddhist himself is not violating the precepts directly and thus could be meeting the requirements of Right Action, at least in a narrow sense. Other people, likely non‐Buddhists, are doing so instead. Furthermore, his intention when calling for political action is to improve the state of the world. It’s not to employ violence or to take what people have not given freely. Therefore, political activism remains acceptable.
To see what’s wrong with this objection, it’s helpful to look to the Buddha’s rules regarding eating meat. Many schools of Buddhism require vegetarianism because meat means killing animals, and Right Action prohibits killing. But this isn’t the case for every school.
The Theravada tradition is somewhat flexible, but the way it achieves that flexibility cuts against the objection from indirectness and lack of intent. In the Jivaka Sutta , part of the collection of the earliest Buddhist texts, the Buddha, Gotama, is asked about his willingness to accept and eat animal flesh. (The Buddha and his monks were mendicants, and thus were dependent on others to provide them with food.) People “slaughter living creatures specifically for the ascetic Gotoma,” his questioner notes, and “Gotomo knowingly eats meat prepared on purpose for him: this [killing] is a deed he caused.”
The Buddha rejects this interpretation and clarifies his position in a way that is frequently interpreted to mean that accepting meat is fine as long as it was not specially killed for him. Eating meat is okay if he didn’t see or hear the animal be killed for him, or if he doesn’t have a reason to suspect it was. Only in these circumstances may monks eat meat without generating bad karma, because they are not “intending to hurt themselves, hurt others, or hurt both.”
Coming back to politics, may a Buddhist permissibly “consume” the fruit of state actions? May a Buddhist benefit from the policies of the state or try to benefit others through those policies? Only if he has not “seen, heard, or suspected” that the benefits come from prohibited acts done on his behalf.
Yet anyone who’s read this essay now has reason to suspect that by taking political action they are in most cases directing the state to violate the first two precepts, and that by benefiting from government policies they are benefiting from the violation of the first two precepts. It’s difficult to see a way to avoid this conclusion, especially for a Buddhist seeking to use politics to achieve desired social ends. He would be directing state action–or a minimum attempting to direct state action–and in a way he hopes will bring benefits broadly, including to himself. (Even if indirectly, as living in a better society is beneficial.)
Buddhism and the Scope of Permissible Political Action
Where does this leave political action within the context of Buddhist ethics? Must Buddhists, if they are to live their principles, simply accept the poor state of the world and never act through government to improve it? I don’t believe so. For there is nothing wrong with using the political means available to us to stop wrong actions. You can vote to end state violence. You can vote to limit laws that inevitably lead to it. You vote to reduce the amount governments take from us against our will. And there are strong reasons to think that doing so, that reducing the state’s ability to use violence or threaten violence or to take money not given to it freely, will achieve many of those very ends so many socially engaged Buddhists aim at.
It needn’t be an impossible choice between following the Eightfold Path and increasing social welfare. As it turns out, the best way to make the world better is to hold government to the same ethical standards Buddhists hold themselves.