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Post-Election Healing: What Buddhism Can Offer

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Based on the toxicity of the presidential election, many might say that our polity is afflicted, depressed, and soul-sick: in short, that our state is suffering. Let’s explore that idea. It is too easy to point to the Republican candidate as the source of this suffering, which manifests as anger, fear, distrust and even revolutionary backlash at the conditions of American society and the processes of its polity. Trump has simply been the outspoken voice railing against the accumulation of these problems–a catalyst, perhaps, but not its root cause. And yet while Trump may fade from politics following the election, the troubling attitudes and perspectives of his “base” will not. Until there is a resolution to the conditions of suffering that lead this segment of the American population to overreact by positing exaggerated conspiracy theories, exhibiting hateful ethnic and religious xenophobias, and believing in bogus economic and scientific positions, they will likely continue. Perhaps we should take a Buddhist approach to our national malaise. A core tenet of Buddhism is the four “noble truths,” the first of which is dukka, a Pali word typically translated as “suffering.” The realization of this truth by the Buddha while in meditation 2,500 years ago was explained in his sermons, known as suttas (sutras in Sanskrit). The Buddha taught that suffering was the predominant condition of life in this material world (samsara), and that suffering was not confined only to physical pain, aging, and death, but to pain and discomfort at all levels–mental anguish, emotional distress, fear, loss, stress, disappointment, and so on. The Buddha discovered a way to eradicate this suffering from one’s life: eradicate its cause. Although the Buddhist sutras contain no mention of whether whole societies can be said to suffer as do human—or any sentient—beings, it is not inappropriate where warranted to apply dukka to societies and cultures. That’s why I believe we have an opportunity to apply the Buddha’s teachings to the presidential election. What is the Buddhist view of eradicating this socio-political suffering, and how can we heal ourselves as a culture, society, and as a polity? In the classic Buddhist formula of the noble truths, in order to cease suffering, one must first identify the cause of suffering, and then eradicate that cause. The cause of suffering, according to the Buddha, is attachment or craving to the impermanent elements of samsara, or life in this material world. When those attached to things are denied them, or whose craving for things goes unfulfilled, they suffer. These attachments and cravings are all-inclusive, up to and including all our desires for recognition and material things, our relationships, and ultimately our very physical lives. In the case of individuals, the way to eradicate the cause of suffering is to adhere to the life outlined by the fourth noble truth, or “eightfold path,” which includes “right thought.” In the case of a society or culture, one must extrapolate, but by applying the same principle of right thought, it would mean adhering to the terms of our national social contract—a contract in which all of us, in order to live together successfully, agree to control our individual impulses under acceptable rules to allow for a peaceful, safe, and law-abiding collective. The original notion of the social contract was developed largely by the philosopher John Locke and both acclaimed and utilized by the Founding Fathers of the United States in our Constitution. In their formulation, it was a rational way to avoid the brutish “law of the jungle,” which is effectively the obverse of the social contract. The classically educated Founding Fathers understood this idea, but apparently many of our fellow citizens today have failed to grasp it, especially those who embrace not just conspiracy theories, ethnic and religious xenophobias, and inaccurate economic and scientific theories, but those who reject an orderly post-election transition of power based on the concept of the loyal opposition. As unoriginal as it may sound, I believe the Buddhist approach to healing this social illness and suffering is, ultimately, education. Simply stated, this illness is avijja (Sanskrit avidya), which translates as “ignorance” or “delusion” and constitutes in Buddhist doctrine a “hindrance” to enlightenment. Perhaps the only treatment we need as a state, in this current context, is knowledge and a loyalty to the truth of facts comprising this knowledge. To me, that means becoming an informed citizen. The way to heal our post-election American polity is to direct those who are afflicted and suffer toward knowledge, and possibly to wisdom, through a patient and measured educational process in civics, and perhaps in civility, as well. This Buddhist treatment also comports entirely with the message emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson, that no democracy can survive without an educated and informed citizenry.

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1 Shawn Bose = "Learn more about The Four Noble Truths in the Buddhist text and OnFaith member explanations here "
2 Sara Di Diego = "The idea behind Locke's social contract is that in order to receive natural rights from the government, one must adhere to the rules of the establishment."
3 David Zuniga PhD MDIV MA = "I enjoyed reading this essay thank you. Buddhism offers other helpful ideas as well. Mindfulness originated in Buddhism. The Buddha taught that when we practice mindfulness deeply we remove the false barriers between self and other. We experience how we are all interconnected. When one person or group suffers we all suffer. It's a powerful way to help overcome homophobia, sexism, racism etc. We can all struggle with demons of the mind like anger, fear etc. And change can happen. We don't want to get stuck in our pain but use our pain to move forward. With metta, David Zuniga"
4 Shawn Bose = "The remarks of Justice David Souter that 'democracy cannot survive ignorance' illustrates this well. "
5 norma p = "I agree; Buddhism CAN offer much. After all, we're ALL here for a reason - but particularly our Abrahamic religions. The relationship between these three can be quite powerful- if only we knew one another better.Again....`education' and `information' - a must in any society. "