Monthly Archives: September 2008

Characteristics of Politics

Henry Kissinger said that ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad name. Of course Kissinger is one of the genuinely bad ones, implicated in violence against humanity such as the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, the invasion of East Timor by Suharto’s Indonesia, and the overthow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile by the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet.

Nevertheless, it is worth distinguishing between good and bad politics. Bad politics is factionalism, manipulation, Machiavellianism. It is power-based, using power to get our way, exercising power to overcome the legitimate interests of others without due process or debate. It is the politics we are used to — the politics that has given politics a bad reputation.

Good politics is more fundamental to human nature. It is about appreciating people’s talents and welding them into a whole. It is about collectively discerning the good, finding the right direction for our societies, and discovering ways to harmoniously deploy our combined attributes and resources to reach our goals. Yes, it involves prioritization and economics, because there are hard decisions to make, but it is based on respect for the weak, and the desire for wholeness.

In this article I will explore some of the characteristics of good politics under the following headings:

1. Discerning the Good
2. “The Master Art”
3. Diversity
4. Pluralism
5. Dialectic
6. Awareness
7. Pragmatism

1. Discerning the Good

Aristotle famously said that “man is a political animal”, and he distinguished mankind from other creatures such as bees who are merely social. What makes mankind political is our ability to discern the good, and to collectively strive for it. Bees are not political because although they are social they cannot reflect on their purpose nor adjust their behaviour. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes:

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the Good and the chief Good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature.”

2. “The Master Art”

Politics is “the master art” because it takes all other skills and arts within a society and welds them into a coherent whole, tending towards the chief Good:

“It is [politics] that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the Good for man.”

Each art or skill has its own particular end or ‘good’: “In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end.” All these goods serve the chief Good which is happiness, just as all the arts and sciences serve the master art which is politics. Happiness is the final Good, which is pursued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else.

3. Diversity

What is the smallest political unit? The modern state is political, the city or town is political, even the family can be thought of as political, because they are all composite social organizations made up of multiple individual human members. What about individuals ourselves? Are we political units? Is there some sort of ‘political’ process occurring within each of us individually?

In many ways the process of individual psychological development is similar to politics. We try to use our faculties such as reason and intuition to discern the good for ourselves — to find purpose and meaning in our lives — and then we try to move our lives in that direction. Often we undergo internal struggle, as visions of the good life compete with one another, or recalcitrant attitudes attached to inferior ways of living resist and protest, binding us to negative behaviors.

Is it too much of a leap to say that the process of individual self-development is truly ‘political’ rather than just a similitude of politics? Perhaps the individual does not fulfill the basic precondition for a political entity, of being a composite social organisation. Surely in order for an entity to be political it must be composed of discrete, diverse units, each with some sort of autonomy. Is it correct to say that our thoughts, emotions, dreams, unconscious tendencies and so forth have enough autonomy, diversity and discretion to make each individual a political unit?

To what extent are even the individuals within a society autonomous? To some extent individuality itself is an illusion. If we try to draw hard and fast lines between ourselves we will fail. We are all swimming in the same cultural soup and our psychological lives are the texture of that soup. Looking from above the bowl it looks like a single meal, even though from inside the bowl we are each identifying ourselves as discrete ‘chunks’!

If a political entity does not need to fulfill the strong criteria of being composed of discrete, diverse, fully autonomous units, it does at least need to fulfill the weaker criterion of being heterogenous — composed of distinguishable parts. A completely bland and homogenous entity cannot be political. Under this weaker criterion the individual could be political.

Diversity, at least in the sense of heterogeneity (i.e. distinguishable difference within an entity) is a necessary precondition for politics, along with dialectic: the possibility for resolving tension arising from difference by using individual or collective discernment of the good.

4. Pluralism

A concept which further illuminates diversity is pluralism. Pluralism is diversity-plus! Diversity is difference, and pluralism is recognizing strength in difference. Pluralism does not merely tolerate diversity, it rejoices in it.

Pluralism should not be confused with liberalism (Parekh, 2006). Liberalism espouses a particular set of values such as the importance of individual freedom and autonomy. Pluralism on the other hand espouses no values other than the appreciation of good qualities in diversity. Liberalism can be intolerant of those who do not espouse liberal values, such as members of traditional religions and pre-Enlightenment cultures. Pluralism on the other hand looks for the strengths in both liberal and traditional cultures. Therefore either liberals or conservatives can be pluralistic.

The point about pluralism is that it requires flexibility. It requires the ability to step outside our own skins and inhabit others’ space. Seeing the world through others’ eyes we come to appreciate their good qualities. This enables the resolution of tensions or conflicts between groups, the dialectic that makes politics work.

5. Dialectic

Dialectic is the resolution of difference. It takes two positions which are in tension (thesis and antithesis) and finds a third position (synthesis) which resolves the tension.

Politics is the governing element of society because it is capable of resolving tensions between different groups and moving the whole society in a particular direction. When politics is working well a society enjoys a high degree of unity. When politics is not working then the differences within a society widen into deep and painful rifts.

The unity enjoyed by a society in which politics is working should not be mistaken for uniformity. Unity is possible whether a society is culturally uniform or heterogenous (i.e. multicultural). The most dynamic harmonious societies are pluralistic.

6. Awareness

Good politics involves awareness of the larger, ‘macro’ dimension of our activities. It is lifting up our heads from the particular tasks we are engaged in to see the bigger picture. It means investing our activities with a broader awareness, thereby improving their quality. Political awareness is an uplifting experience and also poignant, because we know that many of our activities are links in a chain of suffering. For example, if we understand where our food comes from we may become aware of the poverty of many of the farmers who produce it, the pollution caused by transporting it, the difficulties of retailing it, and the compromises made in cooking it. This awareness is political and it may change our behaviour with regard to what food we buy, from where, and how we treat it. Organic food pioneer Alice Waters describes her restaurant as “a political place where people are not just engaged in the creative process of making food but they are aware of the consequences out there in the world.”

Political awareness is a form of spirituality because it invests our activities with a sense of connectedness to a bigger whole. Spirituality inbues activity with a special quality which can truly be called creativity or productivity. Political awareness means that we are deeply immersed in our activities and at the same time we transcend them. The opposite of the feeling of connectness that comes from political awareness is alienation. Activity performed in a state of alienation is devoid of any spiritual quality. It is exhausted and exhausting. It is truly unproductive.

7. Pragmatism

An important truth about the pragmatic nature of politics is captured in the saying “politics is the art of the possible”. Politics is ultimately practical: it is about implementing solutions. People can dream of many things, but if they want their dreams to become real they must get involved in the practical sphere of politics. Politics is grounded in the world.

Being idealistic on its own is not enough, but this does not mean that people should not be idealistic. Simply being pragmatic may result in policy being implemented, but it will not result in society moving forward. The good politician needs a balance between idealism and pragmatism, between heaven and earth.

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Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.

Evolution and Perfection

The atheist Richard Dawkins uses the theory of evolution as a weapon with which to attack religion. He argues that when Charles Darwin proved evolution he disproved religion. There are many moderate scientists who believe that evolution can co-exist with religious faith, but not Dawkins. He believes that once we grasp evolution we must necessarily dispense with religious beliefs such as God, soul, mind (that is not produced from the body), and reincarnation.

When used as a weapon against religion (and I would suggest this is not its best use) the theory of evolution can be quite effective in challenging a number of theological notions. In his recent TV program Richard Dawkins asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams whether God had set up the mechanism of evolution. The Archbishop was happy to say yes, and agreed with Dawkins that once evolution was up-and-running there is no need for divine intervention. Dawkins turned this against the Archbishop, arguing that if there is no need for divine intervention in evolution or history, surely there is no basis for miracles?

This argument is quite effective because it attacks a particular theological notion of perfection. If God is perfect, and uses mechanisms such as evolution as instruments of creation, why should he ever need to intervene in history? Of course, many creationists argue that evolution doesn’t exist because God created everything perfectly right from the start, but some of them take extremely naive, science-denying positions in order to maintain their belief. What Dawkins wants us to admit is that creatures including humans are flawed, therefore God could not have created them, because God, and by implication his creations, must necessarily be perfect.

Mainstream Buddhism is less vulnerable to Dawkins’ attack than the monotheistic religions because it does not posit a creator God, instead arguing that the natural world and the forms we take are created by our minds, and that whilst our minds are contaminated by ignorance, craving and negative karma, we should expect to be reborn in imperfect forms and environments with the nature of suffering. Dawkins would nevertheless still be hostile to all the metaphysical and devotional (‘unscientific’) elements of Buddhism.

The Buddha took suffering as the starting point for his philosophy, and clearly there is a lot of suffering in the world. Suffering challenges naive conceptions of God’s perfection. Why would God create tiny wasps that bore into grubs, lay their eggs in them, and paralyze them so that they can’t move but can still suffer as the eggs hatch and they are eaten from the inside?

In addressing this question it is worth noting that any concept of perfection must have a functional (teleological) element. Things are perfect for particular functions, not in abstract. The plumage of the bird of paradise is perfect for attracting mates, a duck’s beak is perfect for scooping food from a pond, and a chameleon’s eyes are perfect for all-round vision. The world is full of things that do not seem to be perfect because they do not seem to have any particular function (e.g. the human appendix) or because they do not perform their function very well (e.g. the British Parliament). It could be that we simply do not yet understand their true function. Are male nipples really antennae to pick up cosmic rays? Is Starbucks really the first wave of an alien invasion?

The Mahayana Buddhist sage Shantideva wrote that

“Even suffering has good qualities. Because of suffering pride is dispelled. Compassion arises for beings trapped in samsara. Evil is shunned, and joy is found in virtue.” (from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’).

If we were to consider the world as God’s training and testing ground for humans then we could argue that suffering is a necessary part of the design, and in some sense ‘perfect’. However, we might lament the enormity of the suffering with which God sees fit to test us, and pray that his mercy might take precedence over his wrath.

We can also move towards more subtle notions of perfection. In the Fukanzazengi the Zen Buddhist master Dogen writes:

“Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the Way is perfectly pervasive, how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is necessarily unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it? And yet, if a hair’s breadth of distinction exists, the gap is like that between heaven and earth; once the slightest like or dislike arises, all is confused and the mind is lost.” (from ‘On Zen Practice’ by Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, Wisdom Publications 2002, p13)

Here master Dogen is arguing for the natural perfection underlying reality and the mind. Natural perfection does not need to be refined, but must be recognized. While we fail to recognize perfection it appears as imperfection. The irony of Zen practice is that while natural perfection surrounds and permeates everything, so that recognizing it should be the easiest thing of all, letting go of our false conceptions requires effort and training. It is the path that is ‘neither easy nor difficult’.

How can the imperfect be perfect? In Buddhism anger is considered to be imperfect and faulty. Shantideva writes:

“There is no evil greater than anger,
And no virtue greater than patience.
Therefore, I should strive in various ways
To become familiar with the practice of patience.

If I harbour painful thoughts of anger,
I shall not experience mental peace,
I shall find no joy or happiness,
And I shall be unsettled and unable to sleep.

Overcome by a fit of anger,
I might even kill a benefactor
Upon whose kindness I depend
For my wealth or reputation.

Anger causes friends and relatives to grow weary of me
And, even if I try to attract them with generosity, they will not trust me.
In short, there is no one
Who can live happily with anger.

Although the enemy of anger
Creates sufferings such as these,
Whoever works hard to overcome it
Will find only happiness in this and future lives.”
(‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’, Tharpa Publications, Ch.6 vs 2 -7)

Although anger should be abandoned, it is a manifestation of the underlying purity of the mind and of emptiness (shunyata). Relating to anger in this way is a skillful method to come to terms with and eventually abandon it. John Welwood writes:

“A further step on the path of awakening involves learning to be with our experience in an even more direct and penetrating way, which I call unconditional presence. Here the focus is not so much on what we are experiencing as on how we are with it. Being fully present with our experience facilitates a vertical shift from personality to being. Being with anger, for instance, involves opening to its energy directly, which often effects a spontaneous transmutation. The anger reveals deeper qualities of being hidden within it, such as strength, confidence or radiant clarity, and this brings us into deeper connection with being itself. From this greater sense of inner connectedness, the original situation that gave rise to anger often looks quite different. Beyond transmutation there lies the still subtler potential to self-liberate experience through naked awareness. Instead of going into this anger, this would simply mean resting in presence as the anger arises and moves, while recognizing it as a transparent, energetic display of being-awareness-emptiness”
(from ‘Toward a Pschology of Awakening’, Shambala Publications 2000, pp126-7)

Drawing out the full implications of these passages is beyond me, suffice it to say that there is a close relationship between perfection and imperfection. Those who fail to see the relationship between evolution and perfection, and cling to one side or the other, drive us further from reality.

Comparing Buddhist and Muslim Attitudes to Scripture

Please note the limited scope of this article, as it does not compare attitudes towards ‘secondary’ literature such as hadith in Islam and Abhidharma and Mahayana Sutras in Buddhism.

It can be useful to compare the roles that scripture plays in different religions, for example Buddhism and Islam.

Muslims are united in their belief in the Qur’an as their definitive scripture. The Qur’an is the revelation that Mohammed received from God via the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is definitive, but there are four classical schools of Qur’anic interpretation, and Muslims disagree over the scope for ongoing interpretation. ‘Moderate’ scholars such as Tariq Ramadan argue for a relatively wide scope for interpretation compared to ‘fundamentalists’.

In Buddhism there is some debate over which scriptures are authentic. The Theravada tradition denies the authenticity of Mahayana scriptures such as the Perfection of Wisdom and Lotus Sutras which are central to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. (For a Sutra, authenticity means that it was spoken or authorized by the Buddha himself.)

The earliest Sutras (or Suttas) were written in the Pali language, and preserved by the Theravada school in the Pali canon. The Buddha did not write down the teachings himself, nor is it likely that they were transcribed by any of his immediate disciples. Instead they were transmitted orally for a number of generations until the Buddhist Sangha decided it was important to preserve them in writing.

“According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what was remembered as the authoritative ‘word of the Buddha’, took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rajagriha in northern India when 500 arhats took part in a ‘communal recitation’ (samgiti). This event is commonly referred to in modern writings as ‘the first Buddhist council’.” (from ‘The Foundations of Buddhism’ by Rupert Gethin, Oxford University Press 1998, p40)

Gethin goes on to say:

“the notion of a fixed canon of Buddhist scriptures is somewhat problematic. And we must be careful not to impose inappropriate notions of ‘canon’ and authenticity – derived say from Christianity [or Islam] – on the Buddhist tradition. Even in the accounts of the first Buddhist council we are told of a monk who, on hearing the recitation of the Buddha’s teaching by the 500 arhats, declared that he preferred to remember the teaching as he himself had heard it from the Buddha.” (ibid, p46)

This latter comment is interesting because, although the two are held to be mutually supportive, Buddhism prioritizes direct personal experience over scriptural understanding. It is one thing for scriptures to be authentic, it is another to have an authentic realization of Dharma. Correct scriptural understanding is excellent, but deep personal experience is truly liberating. The Theravada monk Ven. Analayo writes:

“The philosophical setting of ancient India was influenced by three main approaches to the acquisition of knowledge. The Brahmins relied mainly on ancient sayings, handed down by oral transmission, as authoritative sources of knowledge; while in the Upanishads one finds philosophical reasoning used as a central tool for developing knowledge. In addition to these two, a substantial number of the wandering ascetics and contemplatives of that time considered extrasensory perception and intuitive knowledge, gained through meditative experiences, as important means for the acquisition of knowledge. These three approaches can be summarized as: oral tradition, logical reasoning, and direct intuition. When questioned on his own epistemological position, the Buddha placed himself in the third category, i.e. among those who emphasized the development of direct, personal knowledge.” (from ‘Satipatthana – the direct path to realization’ by Analayo, Windhorse 2003, p44)

Whilst emphasizing the priority of direct, personal knowledge:

“the Buddha once illustrated the dangers of relying entirely on one’s own direct experience with the help of a parable. In this parable, a king had several blind men each touch a different part of an elephant. When questioned on the nature of the elephant, each blind man gave an entirely different account . . . Although what was experienced by each of the blind men was empirically true, yet their personal direct experience had revealed only part of the picture. The mistake each made was to wrongly conclude that his direct knowledge gained through personal experience was the only truth, so that anyone disagreeing must be mistaken. This parable goes to show that even direct personal experience might reveal only a part of the picture and therefore should not be grasped dogmatically as an absolute ground for knowledge. That is, emphasis on direct experience need not entail a complete rejection of oral tradition and reasoning as auxiliary sources of knowledge.” (ibid pp.45-46)

In comparison to the Buddhist scriptures, the interval between the Qur’an being spoken by the Prophet and written down by his followers was much shorter:

“An inner circle of his followers wrote down verses of the Qur’an as they learned them from the Prophet and there are records of there being a total of twenty-nine scribes for this. By the end of the Prophet’s life (632 CE) the entire Qur’an was written down in the form of uncollated pieces . . . The standard Muslim account is that, during the second year after the Prophet’s death (633 CE) and following the Battle of Yamama, in which a number of those who knew the Qur’an by heart died, it was feared that with the gradual passing away of such men there was a danger of some Qur’anic material being lost. Therefore the first caliph and successor the the Prophet, Abu Bakr, ordered that a written copy of the whole body of Qur’anic material as arranged by the Prophet and memorized by the Muslims should be made and safely stored with him.” (from ‘The Qur’an’, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press 2004, pp.xv-xvi)

The Qur’an is the source of authoritative knowledge in Islam, but understanding the Qur’an also implies a commitment to understanding the world and one’s own soul. William C. Chittick says that the Qur’an:

“tells us repeatedly that God creates the world by speaking. Just as the Qur’an and other scriptures are collections of God’s “signs” or “verses” (ayat), so also the whole universe is a vast collection of God’s signs and verses. In effect, God creates the universe by revealing three books – the universe, the human self, and scripture. In each book he displays his signs and writes out his words. Once we understand that reality is configured by speech, we see that the human task is to read and understand what has been written and to follow the instructions. The interpretation of the Qur’an is the foundation and fruit of all Islamic sciences, and it has always entailed the simultaneous interpretation of the universe and the soul. Every Muslim, by accepting the Qur’an as God’s Speech, has accepted the responsibility of understanding what God is saying . . . Every soul will answer for its own reading, not only of scripture but of the other two books. And, given that the soul’s understanding is written out in itself, the soul’s own book is the all-important determinant of its destiny . . . The crux of knowledge, then, is to understand one’s own soul.” (from ‘Ibn Arabi – Heir to the Prophets’ by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications 2005, pp57-58)