Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hotbutton Political Issues and Buddhism

The two political issues in the U.S. that seem to be most hot button right now are the War in Afghanistan and health care reform. One thing I have always found strange, and extremely sad, is that the debate on health care has been riddled with commentary about cost, while cost is almost never brought up in the debate about the war. When I contemplate Buddhist teachings about suffering and the first precept of non-killing, I can't help but view the manifestations of these separate, but linked debates as terribly wrongheaded. Let's face it: health care has been reduced to a cost/benefits analysis, while any talk of ending either the war in Afghanistan, or it's counterpart in Iraq, has been taken off the table and labeled crazy talk by both major political parties.

Over at his blog, Algernon posted the following about a series of protests occurring on October 15th. There is a grassroots effort developing in response to the Congressional shutout of any government-run options, as well as in direct response to the outrageous greed being displayed by the insurance industry.

As for the war, I stumbled across this post at the blog Breathe about self-identified Buddhists in the U.S. military. I'm not sure how accurate the study is, but it reports just over five thousand self-identified Buddhists currently serving in the military. A tiny number amongst 1.4 million total people in the military.

I think it's faulty to assume that Buddhists would be less interested in serving in the military because of the tenants of the religion. Indeed, there are strong peace teachings in all the major religions, not just Buddhism. But I do wonder about that small number. Is it a miscount? Does it reflect the fact that until recently there was no Buddhist spiritual guidance and support available? In recent years, there have been claims and lawsuits suggesting a heavy, oppressive Christian bias in the military. Does it have anything to do with this?

Although everyone who has read my blog for awhile probably knows that I am ardent pacifist, I have always tried to show respect for my fellow Americans who have chosen to serve in the military. Over the years, I have heard stories of soldiers who felt that joining the military was the only chance they might have to get a better education, or to support their family. I've heard others tell of how they initially felt joining the military was a way to give back to their country, and then realized that the government in power lied to them. Still others continue to view their work in the military as honorable, even as they might question some of the specifics. It's complicated, damn complicated. And I have always felt a strong sense of frustration with the failure of many peace activists to separate out their disgust for war and violent political policies from their views of people who are in the military.

I feel that both of these issues are calling us in the varied and diverse Buddhist community to offer up some of the wisdom of our tradition. Why? Because in both cases, the debates are stale, and the rhetoric used is so often anti-humane and highly suffering producing for people on all sides.

A few questions to ponder.

What does it look like to both support a shift to non-violent approaches, and also to recognize the buddha-nature of our brothers and sisters serving in the military?

Why do we collectively continue to allow political and corporate leaders to frame discussions about health care primarily in terms of cost, while also allowing those same leaders to frame military issues almost solely in terms of national defense?

What is the point of talking about interdependence if it doesn't also apply to large scale social issues?

How can our practice help us take a long range view of these kinds of issues, while also inspiring us to not be complacent in the present?

As far as I'm concerned, our practice is about penetrating the whole works of your life. If you have family members, friends, or colleagues in the military, that issue is part of your life. If you know anyone that has been killed in war, or who has served in a war and been effected by it, it's part of your life. If you feel strongly about the first precept, it's an issue in your life, no matter what you believe about any given conflict. And health care, well, how could it possibly not be an issue that impacts you?

We really can't turn away, even when we try. Eventually, social issues come knocking at your door just like everything else. It can be overwhelming; it's often overwhelming. So, then what? Is this not the pivot point of practice? To work with, to live with, completely, whatever is present?

If you view the political, the social, the collective-scale, as separate from your spiritual life, I'd like to ask: how so? How is it possible? This isn't about endorsing a particular political view, or suggesting that everyone become a social activist. This is about seeing your whole life, all of it, from the most intensely "personal" emotions to the most intensely "impersonal" political decisions that impact us all. If you look hard enough, I'll bet you will start to see that even the divide between the "personal" and "impersonal," between that which is in "my" sphere and that which isn't, is itself nothing but a fiction of self-protection.

1 comment:

spldbch said...

Good point about the cost debate -- I never really thought of it that way. I think there has been some mention about the cost of the wars but certainly not to the degree that cost has been mentioned as a factor in health care reform.

I have a very unique opportunity to see members of the military as individual people who are no different than I am. I'm a military contractor and I do outpatient mental health with military members and their families. At the same time, I was completely against the war in Iraq and think it is unfortunate that our military is still in that country. It also makes the consequences of war more real to me, as I have worked with soldiers who have both emotional and physical wounds as a result of their combat experiences.

A very thought provoking post, as always.