Postscript: Buddhism and Democracy

If my idealism causes me suffering, should I let go of it?

Buddhism is a wonderful philosophy but can be very limited in how it deals with politics. Either that, or I just haven’t found a way to reconcile the four noble truths with the democratic imperative to seek the best leader. Here’s my attempt.

All life is suffering. Expectation from desire is the root of suffering. To free ourselves from suffering we must renounce desire, and this can be achieved through the noble eight-fold path.

After writing my piece on Noynoy, I realize that I will never be satisfied with the current crop of ‘presidentiables’. Even my optimism for Panlilio was tempered by the harsh political realities. This obviously causes me suffering (somewhat) since I will forever be frustrated by Philippine politics. But here is the problem: to ease my ‘suffering’ the Buddha suggests that I let go of my desires — in other words, my ideals for a better country — and just let things be.

But is there no way to reconcile the Buddhist way of life and democracy?

This confounds me, since Siddhartha Gautama was, for the standards of his time, a protester. He ran against the doctrines of the Brahmin in order to make nirvana more equitable and attainable for all. He deconstructed the notion of the soul or self, and presumed that we human beings are fundamentally ‘self-less’ thus laying the groundwork for a doctrine of compassion.

The key point to remember about Buddhism is that any transformation or revolution comes from within. The abolition of the ego is central to the four noble truths, and it suggests that the change I seek cannot happen by asserting my will on others. I have standards about what good government should be, yet the I does not exist. Hence, I have nothing to assert with.

In real terms, I will forever be frustrated if I hold on to certain standards or beliefs and force or await for the world to conform around them. That will simply never happen, hence causing further frustration. Or worse, if they do happen then that will only feed my ego, leading me to believe that the world revolves around me. That can lead me to expect even more and hence I will never be satisfied.

Buddhism does not replace the ego, but through the eight-fold path, disciplines and keeps it in check. It is a science of mind that allows me to accept the world for what it is, while helping me discover my place in it. “Become the change you seek,” is a Buddhist imperative. In other words, in wanting a great president, I have to embody the values and positions of one. But does that mean I have to become one?

Not necessarily. I can embody the values and positions of my ideal president but without the egoistic expectation that I become one. If the Buddhist non-self can lead to compassion, in politics it can lead to citizenship.

Participating in the political process fits with the Buddhist notion of sacrificing our self for the greater good. In our world today, citizenship demands a lot — time, interest, the will to learn, and the courage to stand up for what we believe in. These are difficult to give since we have so many other things we want to do in this world, but if we truly care for our country then it will be easy to find the time and effort to fuller citizens. This just requires a lot of introspection and personal discernment, and hence true democracy in Buddhism can only start with the self.


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