The Bodhisattva Path in Dark Times: Post-Election Thoughts

buddhaThe election is now over and a narcissist without moral compass will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation on earth. However much we wish it otherwise, this is now true.  We have no real knowledge of just how badly this might turn out—whether he will be an American Mussolini or merely an American Berlusconi.  All of our hopes and fears are just mental projections.  None are real. 

But we mustn’t delude ourselves.  There is a real potential for serious misfortune and harm: the collapse of efforts to protect our planet from global warming; the disruption of the international order; the detention and arrest of political dissidents; curbs on freedoms of the press; the misuse of modern techniques of surveillance; the end of access to healthcare for millions; an end to abortion rights; an uptick in racist, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT crimes by emboldened alt-right groups; and so it goes.  Some of this may come to pass; some might not.

How dark this all becomes depends largely on us.  Will we collaborate or resist?  Will we be proactive or merely reactive?  Will we persist in the face of fear?  Will we stand up for our neighbors and have each others backs? Dark times call for a courage unneeded in easier times. This is when we find out what we’re made of.

One can stand up courageously without viewing the world dualistically as an ”us vs. them” situation—without hating Donald Trump or the people who voted for him—with an understanding of the reasons why people might have voted for him: disillusionment with politics as usual, anger at both parties for abandoning the working class, and anger at liberals for their condescension and cultural disdain. It’s possible to see how we’re part of the problem—how we contributed to this perilous moment. Donald Trump and the Republicans didn’t create this alone.  We all did our part.

Now that we’re here, we have our responsibilities.  We can be part of an historic non-violent resistance to fascism in whatever forms it takes.  We can strengthen the institutions of civil society that serve as a bulwark against the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion—forces that operate in each and every human heart regardless of party.

The bodhisattva path is not dependent on good times.  It’s the same in easy times and dark times alike: show up, pay attention, and do whatever is necessary to take care of the things that fall within our purview.

May we all have the courage to live up to our bodhisattva vows.

24 Replies to “The Bodhisattva Path in Dark Times: Post-Election Thoughts”

  1. You are so wise Seth, especially your last paragraphs. How did the Buddhists behave during the great cleansing of the Jews in the 30’s and 40’s I wonder?

    1. They certainly didn’t raise their voice to protest. While Shanghai served as a refuge for many Jews fleeing Europe, the Japanese Zen establishment supported the Japanese war effort and their axis alliance with Germany. I suspect that Buddhists in other Asian countries were more concerned about their long-term fight against British and French colonialism than they were about the fate of a people they knew little about.

  2. Amen. May we answer when called, and feel neither superior nor inferior to the moment. Remember to breathe. The person on the other side: of the desk, of the tracks, of the wall, has the same needs and fears that you do. Aim for consolation without pandering or betraying. Forgive them, forgive yourself, and go on.

  3. “Donald Trump and the Republicans didn’t create this alone. We all did our part.”

    I respectfully disagree. I am certain I did what I could to prevent this disaster. I know many others who also did all they could. The problem is complex. Let’s not forget, first of all, the fact that Clinton actually won the popular vote. Second, let’s not discount that she was leading by double digits ten days before the election and Trump was in a tailspin, partially from the Access Hollywood tape fallout. Then came the October surprise. But for that surprise, even the undemocratic and antiquated electoral college system would not have prevented a Clinton victory. What was Mr. Comey’s intent when he violated FBI’s policy and tradition of not trying to affect national elections? Why did he decide to refrain, on the other hand, from speaking about the FBI’s investigation into the Trump-Russia connection on the basis of the same policy that he violated when it came to Clinton? Besides these factors, there were many others affecting the outcome, some of which you mention. But I don’t think we all deserve the blame. In fact, one YUGE problem I perceived all along, which continues to hit me, is that many folks seem to be living in a parallel universe. Facts don’t matter. Reason is foreign to them. Logic has no impact on their thinking. I don’t care if I sound elitist, but it seems to me large parts of the electorate have been dumbed purposely by the Machine so they can be more easily manipulated. Add to this problem the fact that we are living in an era that is increasingly complex. It’s hard to understand what is going on. It requires an effort. It takes reflection, research, questioning the false “news” propagated by the partisans, paid misinformers populating social media, and then, of course, Fox “News” and right wing talk radio. To make matters worse, the corporate media have turned from news to celebrity infotainment and created the conditions for a reality TV star to rise. They gave him billions of dollars worth of free exposure, and, with some exceptions, did not question his outrageous lies and absurdities. They loved the ratings. So it’s not everybody’s fault. Let’s put the blame where it belongs so we can start to direct our efforts where they need to go.

    1. Amaury, I’m not trying to assign blame, but only to invite us to inquire into our own degree of responsibility for this outcome. I think the “elitist” opinion you voice — that an aversion to facts, logic, and reason and a succumbing to media manipulation accounts for why “those people” voted for Trump is not only an inadequate explanation, but is itself part of the problem. People voted for Trump for all sorts of reasons. Included in those reasons is the perhaps correct perception that liberal educated elites have little empathy or understanding for the problems they live with on a daily basis, and in fact, treat them with condescension and contempt. The people Hillary called the “basket of deplorables” and who Obama said “clung” to their “guns and religion.” They may not be under any illusions about Trump’s narcissism and fecklessness, but they couldn’t see Hillary as someone who really represented their interests and cared about them. And of course, as someone who invited billionaire Mark Cuban to sit with her during the debates, whose daughter is married to a Goldman Sachs employee, and whose husband played a historic role in advancing globalization and financial deregulation, Trump voters might have had reason to distrust whether she was really their “friend.” Now you and I supported Bernie, but Bernie, alas, failed to connect with older Southern African-American voters and his language about “socialism” and “revolution” may have been a bridge too for many middle American voters. He might not have fared any better in the general election.

      To put it succinctly, when we fall prey to “us vs. them” thinking, we risk becoming our own worst enemies. I guess I’m aware of my own failures of empathy. I’m not wallowing in guilt about it. Just aware.

    2. Are you aware that millions of people had sworn for years they would never vote for Hillary. And the Democrat party was warned of that fact. And the party conspired to nominate her anyway. What were those folks to do? They only had three options at this point: 1) vote Trump, 2) vote Stein or Johnson or 3) stay home. Many of them actually stayed home rather than vote for her. Hillary lost the election. She along with the Democratic Party gave us Trump. ALL the reasons you listed are b.s. Sorry to break it to you. Looking back, a vote for Hilary was a wasted vote, those votes should have been cast for Stein.

  4. Seth: I said “The problem is complex.” Of course many more conditions and circumstances “dependently co-arose” to bring about this result, an unfortunate example of C. G. Jung’s “synchronicity” of historic events, as discussed in the foreword to the Richard Wilhelm translation of the I-Ching. And my view of the folks who voted for Trump is not best encapsulated in the term “those people.” I respect Trump voters and recognize their concerns, although the notion that Trump voters were largely white collar, low-income has been debunked. All kinds of people supported him, including a greater percentage of minorities who are more disadvantaged than his base of white men, and including people close to me whom I consider intelligent and sensitive. This was a change election where the people were fed up with the corruption, mendacity and lack of genuineness of the ruling classes, both in the Republican and Democratic parties. Trump gave them the finger; that’s what folks wanted–to hell with the rest. The Democrats chose the worst possible candidate to do that and for a change election. I just don’t think that clear political analysis and the recognition of manufactured consent, if I may invoke Noam Chomsky, is part of the problem. It should be part of finding a solution.

  5. I really like ”narcissist without moral compass.” I used it in a response to an FB friend. But shouldn’t it be ”narcissist with a moral compass.” I so seldom get these grammar things right, I hope I am lucky this time.

    I have to disagree that it is somehow elitist to cite the aversion to facts, etc. and the media’s role as significant factors in what happened. We live in an age of misinformation, when it is so easy to ring the bell of untruth and, of course, once a bell is rung, it can’t be un-rung. Most people do not read beyond the headlines and because it is presented to them in a headline, they will believe just about anything. The biggest challenge we face is to turn this around, or as I read on someone’s poster ”Make American Think Again.”

    1. Hi, David. “Without a moral compass” is what I intended. A moral compass points towards ethical action just like a magnetic compass points to true north. Trump lacks just such a compass. I agree that it is fine and proper to object to the role of the media for spreading disinformation and misinformation. That’s not elitist.What’s elitist is treating Evangelicals with scorn because they have a different set of ethical principles, or treating rural voters with scorn because of their lack of “sophistication,” or assuming that all Trump voters are either stupid, deluded or misinformed. We need to foster real communication with Trump voters that does not presume our own superiority and is open to the possibility that they have genuine concerns that are not being taken seriously enough by people like us.

  6. Seth, I know what “moral compass” means. The question was about whether or not there should be an ‘a’ in the sentence. At present, it lacks such a vowel.

  7. Seth:
    The problem with Evangelicals and other so-called Christians is not that they have a different set of ethical principles; it’s that they have chosen to ignore the fact that Trump has no principles of any kind, violates every tenet of Christianity, and lacks basic human decency. Also, have you tried to reason with Trump supporters? It’s impossible, because they live in another, upside-down, Orwelling universe. And did you hear Trump surrogates like Conway, Hughes, McEnany, Lord, and Lewandowski defending Trumpism? First of all, THEY don’t listen to anybody. Then, all they did was spew venom, propagate falsehoods, and make disingenuous arguments and spurious excuses. And, if anyone else tried to call them out, they were loud and obnoxious and spoke over other people, bullying them. What do we do? Turn the other cheek? Normalize the abnormal? Check out my review of The Politics of Jesus:

    1. Amaury, you misread me. In discussing the concerns of Evangelicals in general, they have an ethics that are Biblically-based which I happen to disagree with but can still respect. I was not suggesting that Trump and his immediate circle of advisors and apologists had an ethical sense that requires similar respect. On the other hand, an Evangelical who believes that abortion is the overriding ethical issue of this era might vote for Trump not because he agrees with Trump’s morality in general, but because he thinks overturning Roe v. Wade is more important than Trumps character. If so, while I would strongly disagree with that conclusion, I would respect that it was made in good faith. I am suggesting respect for people who see things quite differently than we do. I am not, however, suggesting a policy of acquiesence with or turning the other cheek towards Trumpism. I am suggesting a vigorous policy of resistance to Trumpism by any ethical non-violent means necessary, the defense of our values and democratic institutions, the defense of our civil liberties, and the defense of vulnerable populations. I am suggesting that we stand up and have each other’s backs. I am suggesting that we donate money to organizations that support our goals, that we demonstrate in the streets, that we advocate and argue for our values, that we refuse cooperation with immoral actions, and that we do not collaborate in any way with the forces of emerging American fascism. On the other hand, we must never forget our basic respect for all individuals as fellow human beings, and that while being steadfast and unshakable in our commitments, we never lose our empathic and compassionate connection to all beings.

  8. I am a highly educated immigrant whom voted for Trump. I just happen to live in a red state and not the east or west coast.
    1) Trump by far is no saint or role model I would want my children to follow; neither is Bill Clinton, JKF. Some great leaders also have great flaws.
    2) We must judge for ourselves whom the person is and not by whom people/main stream media say he/she are.
    2) Many people are very coarse and in-articulate with language but are very good at what they do (nerds, scientist, plumbers, sailors)
    3) You can fix incompetence with advisers, you can’t fix corruption with advisers.
    4) Both political establishment parties have lost it way with the average american people. I feel more at home with core principles of the republican party, the party of Lincoln, the party where the republican congress(not the democratic congress) supported the civil rights act that was sign by a democrat LBJ. FACT: only 1% of racist democrats switch to the republican party since the civil rights act.

    Democrats at it principles seem to want to push society towards a utopia…but it somebody’s image of utopia and a utopia that can never be achieve on earth. Democrats believes in more laws and regulation to push society towards a common good; but whose common good? Hitler’s or Lincoln’s common good? Democrat system of govt is largely dependent on the leader.

    Republicans at its principles doesn’t believe in a uptopia; only to promote equality of opportunities for ALL citizens; and a small government that does it basic function(preventing abusive monopolies, foreign threats, and providing domestic infrastructure) and no more; so that it’s citizens can decide their own fate; decide the fate of their own country. FACT: Abraham Lincoln did not believe the black man is equal to the white man, consider sending blacks back to Africa; but he strongly believe the black man’s right to earn money for his work. It is the equality of opportunity NOT the equality of outcomes that will continue to lead america in it’s dynamic change in history, independent of an American president’s idea of utopia. It is the equality of opportunity that has made America to be the 1st to the moon, strongest scientific industrial strength, highest GDP since 1890, most dominate culture in modern times. There is no country in the world that has a dream; except for the American Dream.

    I feel very much an existential Buddhist.

    1. Arvn, thank you for adding your voice to this blog. I really am not in the mood to debate your comments point-by-point. While we profoundly disagree on political questions, I respect your right to share your opinions and try to convince others of their correctness. I hope you are right about Donald Trump’s character, but I fear the worst from him, not based on media reports, but based on his own comments and on his own objective behavior over the course of many decades. While I strongly disagree with Trump’s likely policies (to the extent that he actually has any policies or convictions) and the Republican party’s policies in general, I am much more bothered by his character deficiencies which are severe and which–I fear–spell trouble for the future of American culture, American democracy, and for world peace. Time will prove which one of us is right. I would love to be wrong. But in the meantime, I will work hard to do all that I can to try to limit the damage he may cause to civil society. As they say, hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

  9. Thanks for sharing Seth. I enjoyed your commentary as always. Funny how politics exposes the wide variance between our individual perspectives – and with such drama! This reminds me how we are all fundamentally deluded. Each of us a prisoner to Self, a cell from which we have the tiniest of views. When we condense that tiny perspective into the even smaller frame of language, it’s no wonder we cannot agree on anything… With that said, I understand the fear that we have fallen into a Dark Time, but let us remember, there is no Dark nor Time. How then shall I respond? I shall continue to extinguish Self. As I diminish, Lovingkindness arises. And, it turns out, Lovingkindness is the perfect response.

    1. Very good reminder, Mr. Patterson. I find your argument very wise. Thank you. I also think that much of our judgments about other people’s character can be delusional, based on other people’s opinions, neglected contexts and most of all, our limited selves. Unfortunately I fail to be mindful of this all the time!

  10. Hi,

    First time on your blog after searching for people’s reflections on Jukai.
    Thank you for those posts and this one.

    I’m writing from the UK and we’ve had a surge of bigotry over the past 12 months since many political events and rhetoric has made those who are usually quiet, now feel enabled to act without restraint.

    I do have a conflict that arises when the issue of non-violence is addressed. Whilst rightfully non-violence is a good practice and the world is full of generally non-violent people, I firmly believe in the necessity for people to defend themselves in a manner appropriate to their understanding of events as they happen. This sometimes involves violence. Sometimes that violence is pre-emptive also.

    The conflict centres on the desire for peaceful coexistence, and yet in reality this is far from the reality in our human society. I’ve also experienced how many people’s principles of non-violence prevented them from doing what was good to do, further enabling violence and allowing it to continue and grow.

    One very sad example happened only two days ago in the US. Whilst the media showed pictures of windows being smashed and refuge bins being turned over, and a prominent fascist who calls for genocide of black people being punched by an anti-fascist protester on camera, from this the internet was a wave of condemnation of this destruction of property and one disgusting person being hit purely as consequence of his hateful actions. Whilst everyone was full of judgement, a young man was shot in the stomach at a protest by what’s only so far known as a “counter-protester”. This man, a member of the same workers union as myself, is now critical and his family desperately asking for funds to pay medical costs. At the same time, Democrats are raising funds to say sorry to a fascist that was punched in the face. So whilst the media was debating the ethics of breaking a glass window or one person having a sore jaw, people are dying and in fear, like they have been for too long.

    Therefore, reading your post, I’m interested as to the meaning or intent when you wrote “non-violent resistance” and do you see this as a practice that should be stuck to out of principle or strategy?

    For myself, kinda coupled with what you wrote about Jukai before the ceremony, the precepts are frustrating, particularly at times like this, simply because they offer nothing separate from ourselves making tough decisions with a wisely discerning mind. So, once again for myself, I would use violence if I saw it as reasonable and appropriate and trust in my practice enough to be able to do it at least mindfully and hold myself fully to account not only to others but also, and maybe more importantly, myself. I don’t necessarily see violence as ‘always’ willfully acting against the precepts.

    My thoughts are with you and all those for whom the struggle has become more difficult and dangerous.

    1. Thank you, Mike, for your thoughtful question. For a more thorough account of my view on Buddhist ethics, please check out my article in Tricycle. Regarding the recent news story of someone punching neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in the face, I would first like to point out that we, as of this moment, know very little about that came about. We don’t know, for example, if Spencer’s attacker was an agitated and misguided concerned citizen, a thrill-loving sociopath, a foolish victim of an agent provocateur, or a paid shill whose job it was to gain Mr. Spencer some on-line sympathy. In any case, I would like to reiterate my commitment to non-violence, not just for tactical reasons, but for spiritual reasons as well. When we use violence, we take ourselves further away from our ultimate aim of spiritual awakening. That does not mean that I would not use force under any or all circumstances. I would use force to protect my family from criminals intent on murder or rape, for example. Or to protect my Mexican immigrant neighbors from a rampaging gang of vigilantes. But in such cases, my goal is protection of dear ones from harm and suffering, and not an expression of so called “righteous” anger and hate. I would add that whenever we use violent force in service of caring, that we ought to simultaneously be aware of the bad karma that we are creating in the form of blow-back, unintended consequences, and a certain hardening of our hearts, and that we are in fact, however virtuous our intentions and goal, also causing harm to other sentient beings. Things are never that simple. Lastly, it’s hard to see what good violence has done in the cause against American First-ism. What good has setting a few trash cans on fire and punching Richard Spencer actually accomplished? Nothing that I can see. Better to build a large-scale coalition of well-meaning people, to change public opinion, to utilize the courts, and to engage in civil disobedience as necessary. Better to encourage our blue towns, counties, and states to become foci of resistance against immoral orders that might potentially issue from the federal government. More often than not, when we resort to violence, we become the very people we are trying to protect ourselves from. Would nonviolence have worked against Hitler? Probably not. But Trump is not Hitler. At least, not yet. We still have other remedies and recourses. Our responses should always be proportionate to the danger, and should also weigh the real benefits and real harms that are their possible consequences.

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