By Alex Chong Do Thompson
As the presidential inauguration approaches, there are many different emotions running through me—anger, sadness and confusion would probably be the big three.
I honestly don’t understand how something as illusory as politics has the ability to take a country of intelligent, decent human beings, and turn us into raving, hateful, lunatics. My social media feeds have been filled with an incredible amount of vitriol over the past several days, and as a Zen practitioner, I’ve been at a loss at how to respond. To say nothing feels like giving silent consent to comments that I find repulsive. But to say something, on the other hand, is a sure way to continue the karmic cycle of people using hateful speech to get more “likes” on Facebook.
What to do?
Thankfully, I recently started reading a book by Beatrice Lane Suzuki called Mahayana Buddhism, which provided me with some clarity on this topic. In it, she investigates the writings of Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher in ancient India, and the work he did in making Buddha’s teaching of emptiness or sunyata easier for lay people to understand.
I took a crack at explaining the concept in a personal blog post when discussing environmentalism. But the truth is that the idea of emptiness has always been difficult for me to put in words. In fact, I have a funny memory of reciting the Heart Sutra for my sister one day. I got as far as, “Therefore in emptiness no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth…” before she interrupted me and stated quite truthfully, “But you do have eyes, ears, and a mouth!”
I’ll admit that I didn’t have a good response, so I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and continued chanting. Meanwhile, she just chalked it up to her weird, hippie brother talking nonsense once again! But according to Nagarjuna, we were both right.
Essentially, Nagarjuna separates reality into two parts. There is conditional reality which is our humdrum, everyday existence. And then there is absolute reality which is existence before we start putting labels on everything like Democrat, Republican, good, bad, etc. It’s important to note, however, that the two are not separate entities.
Conditional reality exists as a part of absolute reality; in other words, I do have eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth. However, that’s not the whole story. I’m also a part of every living creature that exists on this planet, and they are a part of me. In the realm of absolute reality, we are all connected in infinite ways that we’ll never fully understand. The problem is that we get so wrapped up in our humdrum, everyday existence that we forget absolute reality exists.
I’d almost compare it to being a single leaf on a very large tree. Yes, the leaf is real. It has a life and it’s able to function to a certain extent all on its own, but it’s still part of a much larger entity which is the tree. In this example, the leaf represents conditional reality and the tree represents absolute reality—they’re both real. If we focus too much on the conditional reality of the leaf without caring for the tree as a whole, then everything dies and we create suffering. On the other hand, if we focus solely on the rest of the tree (absolute reality) and ignore the leaves, then everything still dies.
Either way, we suffer.
Our challenge is to care for both the individual leaf and the rest of the tree at the same time. In other words, we must live in emptiness but work in form.
So what does any of this have to do with politics? Well, I think all of the pain and ugliness that I’ve witnessed this past week is a direct result of people, including myself, losing sight of absolute reality. We created these special clubs for ourselves called Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Party. Then we spent the better part of a year launching verbal missiles at each other in the false belief that we could harm other people without also harming ourselves.
And where did that get us? We are all angry, confused, and filled with anxiety. It’s not a good thing, but it’s to be expected.
Because that’s what happens when people forget that we are all leaves on the same tree.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that we should get rid of political discussion. Politics are an important part of conditional reality. The United States literally couldn’t function without multiple parties with multiple viewpoints duking it out in the political arena. It’s messy, but a certain amount of conflict is healthy in order to help us grow as a nation. But that only works if it is balanced by the knowledge that we are all children of the absolute.
We are all leaves on the same tree, and the same basic goodness that lived in Buddha 2,500 years ago lives in all of us regardless of our political affiliations.
With this in mind, when I have political discussions in the future I’m going to focus less on the conditional reality of the other person’s politics, and more on the absolute reality of their basic goodness; less on the conditional reality that says I’m talking to a political opponent and more on the absolute reality that says in some small way I’m talking to Buddha himself.
*blog originally published here
Alex Chong Do Thompson is a former Marine who now earns his living as a Business Analyst. He splits his free time between social justice work, cycling, and deepening his meditation practice. Alex has been a Zen practitioner since 2013, and he is training to become a lay minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. You can read more of his writing by visiting his blog.
Editor: Dana Gornall