Do Buddhists Have a Role in Politics?

In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” People are hurting right now. And in their pain, they’re lashing out in ways that make the situation worse. Our human tendency is to join in the struggle, but the Dharma demands more from us than that. It impels us to see the bigger picture, to soothe the pain of both our friends and our enemies; to be the peacekeepers.


By Sensei Alex Kakuyo

A while back I read a book called, The Ape in the Corner Office by Richard Conniff.

In the book, Conniff uses examples from the animal kingdom (everything from fish to primates) to explain why people do the strange things they do. For example, have you ever wondered why bosses can show up late to meetings, but their employees can’t?

In short, showing up late is a dominance display. He or She is the alpha of the office, and the meeting doesn’t start until they get there. So, either consciously or subconsciously they’re reinforcing their position in the group hierarchy each time they make people wait.

In contrast, when an employee shows up early and puts a hot cup of coffee by the boss’s chair, they’re showing that they’re both competent and respectful of the group dynamic. These are important traits to have when it’s time for year-end bonuses.

Reading the book was humbling because it reminded me that humans aren’t as evolved as we think we are.  Many of our strange, irrational behaviors map perfectly to the animal kingdom, suggesting that we’re little more than primates with cell phones.

For example, when a young male reaches maturity in a chimpanzee colony, he may decide to challenge for the alpha position.

If he is successful at deposing the current alpha, then he’ll receive mating rights with all of the troop’s females, access to prime sleeping spots, and the best food. In order to accomplish this, the young male will become a politician of sorts.

He’ll spend time grooming the senior females in the colony and playing with their babies. He’ll also give gifts to some of the lower-ranking males in order to gain their support.  Of course, the current alpha is doing the same in the hopes of warding off any challengers. Each of the males will continue gathering allies within the group until the tension reaches a breaking point, and one of them attacks.

Ideally, the conflict will have a clear winner with one of the males backing down.

But if that doesn’t happen, the back and forth struggle can last for weeks. This type of conflict could put the colony in danger if it got out of control, but it’s managed by other chimpanzees who take on the role of peacekeepers.

Often a senior female will take it upon herself to run back and forth between the two parties grooming them and sticking her finger in their mouths (a method used by primate mothers to calm crying babies). Of course, this doesn’t put a permanent end to the conflict. The males will go at each other again, and one of them will lose. But it lowers tensions to a manageable level, so that the colony isn’t destroyed in the process.

This image of the peacekeeping chimpanzee has been stuck in my head as I’ve pondered the role of Buddhists in politics.

There are some Buddhist teachers who seem to think that the angrier we get, the better we are for it. They envision a world where Buddhists make protests signs during retreats, learn about social justice from Dharma teachers and tweet hot takes on why they like/dislike certain politicians.

Of course, what they do in their sanghas is their business, but I have some thoughts that I’d like to share.

Conflict has existed in human communities for as long as there have been humans. One of the great accomplishments of the 20th century is that we’ve learned to make that conflict (mostly) nonviolent.

We make dominance displays through negative attack ads. We gather allies through social media and we “fight” on a predetermined day by going to the voting booth. Our elections are contentious, but we always accept the results in principle if not in practice. That is to say, we complain vigorously on Twitter, but those complaints rarely turn into physical violence.

And all of that—including the conflict—is a wonderful thing. A certain amount of struggle is good for our country. It ensures that no one group becomes too powerful from holding the alpha position (aka the presidency) for too long. But too much conflict is dangerous. If it gets out of control, then it puts us in danger, just like two warring chimpanzees can put their colony in danger.

So, that begs the question: If the Democrats and Republicans are rival primate groups, fighting for the alpha position, who is the peacekeeper?  Who will be the wise third-party entity that will work to lower tensions when everyone gets riled up?  What group has the requisite training to put their egos aside and bring some much needed calm to the equation?

Personally, I think Buddhists are up to the task. There’s a precedent, as Buddha helped negotiate several treaties during his lifetime; saving countless people from the trials of all-out war. And who is better equipped than us to calm the fires of anger that threaten to burn our country down?

In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

People are hurting right now. And in their pain, they’re lashing out in ways that make the situation worse.  Our human tendency is to join in the struggle, but the Dharma demands more from us than that. It impels us to see the bigger picture, to soothe the pain of both our friends and our enemies; to be the peacekeepers.

Because Buddhism teaches that all people have Buddha-nature, regardless of their politics. So, all people are worthy of our love and respect. That’s not a popular message in these divided times, but it’s a message that people need to hear.

Who better to say that than us?


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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Sensei Alex Kakuyo

Columnist at The Tattooed Buddha
Sensei Alex Kakuyo is a former Marine, author, and Buddhist teacher in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. He teaches a nonsectarian approach to the Dharma, which encourages students to seek enlightenment in everyday life.

You can follow him by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen and on Twitter: @sameoldzen
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