Does Buddhism Require You To Be a Liberal?


It’s a central tenet of hipster Buddhism that being a Buddhist is just like being a college-town liberal, but with Oriental art and maybe some yoga classes.

I don’t think it’s necessarily so. In fact, I think Buddhism, real Buddhism, is inherently more in tune with libertarian “conservative” politics. (This isn’t the place for this particular rant, but I scare-quote “conservative” because I think it’s a bad term. As I was telling someone last night, I’m not a “conservative,” I’m an 18th-century Enlightenment radical.)

As I usually do, I see this in terms of first principles, the Four Noble Truths, and yes, I am going to recite them again:

  • Our daily understanding of life, the universe, and everything is full of frustration, annoyance, discomfort, disease, anticipation, avarice, mindless acquisitiveness, dread, anxiety, stress — all the things that are included in the Sanskrit word duhkha, which is usually translated as “suffering.”
  • This suffering arises from clinging to our desire to make life, the universe, and everything be the way we want: we want pleasurable experiences, we want to avoid unpleasant experiences, and we want to control the world to make all these things happen. This is called duhkha samodhaya, the truth of the root of suffering.
  • This suffering ends when we absorb and reconcile ourselves with the fact that life, the universe, and everything stubbornly persist in doing what they’re doing and that clinging is pointless and leads to suffering. This is called nirodha, the snuffing out of duhkha.
  • And we can make that reconciliation by practicing ethical conduct (sila), by developing wisdom (prajña), and by engaging in practices that quiet the endless internal chatter (samadhi), which tends to be all about how much we like the good feelings, dislike the bad feelings, and want to make things go the way we want. Buddha gave advice on how to do this, first in the Noble Eightfold Path (aryastangamarga in Sanskrit, 八正道 in Chinese, or “I can never remember all eight at the same time” in English) and then later in more specific guidance in the Precepts.


The Eightfold Path is broken down into three categories:

Prajña, wisdom, which I’ll talk about more another time. For now, I just want to say that Sanskrit, like English, makes a distinction between “wisdom” and knowledge (jñana). Knowing how to shoot a gun is “knowledge.” Knowing when to shoot a gun is “wisdom.” This has two parts which I’m not going to go into.

Samadhi is basically meditation. I wrote about meditation and salad a few weeks ago. This has three parts, and I’m also not going to go into those right now.

Sila, or ethical conduct. This also has three parts (see, 2+3+3=8, it all adds up) which are correct speech, correct action and correct livelihood.

Correct speech means abstaining from lying, from malicious gossip, and from saying things meant to hurt someone else. Correct action means not killing without necessity, not stealing from someone else, and not having illicit, harmful sex.

Finally, there’s correct livelihood, which means directing your work and livelihood to things which reduce suffering for yourself and others.


And now, at last, we’re getting to the point. I’ve talked before about the distinction between real compassion and “idiot compassion.” Real compassion, “skillful” compassion, leads to actions that reduce suffering; idiot compassion leads to actions that make you feel better but don’t reduce suffering.

Skillful compassion leads you to be charitable: someone is having trouble and you ease their trouble, but without hurting yourself. In place of skillful compassion and charity, though, the liberal approach is to enforce charity: they take money, time, goods from others to give them to someone else. If you are doing this by force, though, how is that not stealing? Does it decrease suffering? And is it correct livelihood to make your living by doing that?

Look at the video of the woman screaming that she’s going to get her Obama phone — no, I’m not going to link it, it makes me sad — and see if she looks like the Obama phones are reducing her avarice and mindless acquisitiveness.

The idea is that poor people need phones to be able to get jobs; the practice is that poor people get their free phones and sell them. Out of a desire to fix the problem of poor people finding it hard to receive calls from employers, and the knowledge that they can use “government” money to buy cells phones, you get a program that increases suffering, by encouraging the avarice you can see in that woman’s face, hear in her voice; you also create a whole group of people whose livelihood depends on having government goodies to hand out. Some of them are politicians, others are civil servants, but all of them are not being rewarded for decreasing suffering.

Buddhism, at its heart, is completely individualistic: none of the aspects of the Eightfold Path say “you must do this good thing,” they all say “you should abstain from doing this bad thing.” It seems to me that modern liberalism is entirely consumed with making other people do things they think are good, and never encouraging them not to do things that are bad.

It’s idiot compassion, and idiot compassion comes about when we try to force the world to behave. And trying to force the world to behave is one of the roots of suffering, not something that leads to an end of suffering.


shutterstock / Tsurukame Design / Augustino