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Lions Roar : March 2006
Editorial: What Really Matters v .s s o U .g ro Þ ro '1j ro Z (\) >-- ,..D <.r; ...:::: . E ...:::: (\) 4-< o .g ro Þ WHAT'S REALLY IMPORTANT in politics? The media reports on policy, legislation, platforms. More often they focus on the game of politics-the parties, the candi- dates, the strategies, and the polls. Both policy and elec- toral politics are obviously important, yet they are just the surface manifestations of deeper emotional, moral, and ultimately spiritual attitudes. The real substance in politics is in the heart, not the head. This issue of the Shambhala Sun has two articles that strike directly at this point. One offers us hope; the other can only make us despair. Both point to perhaps the central issue in political life. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is the acknowledged founder of the Engaged Buddhism movement. His union of Buddhism and politics was not born in some removed or privileged setting; it was forged in the fire of the Vietnam War, in efforts to save lives, rebuild villages, stand against repression, and find a middle way to peace. When he tells us that we must see others' suffering as our own, that this alone is how we can save our world in the twenty- first century, we ought to listen. His is not a philosophi- cal view; it is not "idealistic." It is a practical response to life and death situations, based on his own coura- geous work in Vietnam. It is proof of the Buddhist axiom that skillful means-real effectiveness-result naturally from wisdom. What does Buddhism-what does any religion, for that matter-tell us about politics, about living together as human beings? I think Buddhism's most important political message is that we can't pick and choose among people. As the Dalai Lama often tells us, all beings are equal in seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. How can we favor some over others? An aspiration called the Four Limitless Ones, one of the foundational practices of Buddhism, goes like this: Mayall sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness. / May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering. / May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering. / May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice. These four lines (the Brahmaviharas, in Sanskrit) represen t the heart-wish of the buddhas. I think the word we have to focus on in this prayer is "al!:' It doesn't say "only those of my family, neighborhood, party, race, gender, class, religion, or nation:' It includes people we don't know and those different from us, and, tough as it may be, even those who cause us harm. According to Buddhism, we always have a dog in the fight. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that only this impartial love and universal sense of community will get us safely through the twenty- first century. I believe that. Which brings us to another story in this issue. For there is a whole continent of this world already heading toward disaster. Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, is telling us that tens of millions of people are going to die, and whole societies will crumble, if we don't do something. Why aren't we responding with urgen- cy, particularly when solutions are well within reach? Is it because we pick and choose what kind of people we care about? Because, as terrible as it is to say, we value some human lives more than others? Buddhism identifies three attitudes at the root of our suffering: passion, aggression, and ignorance. Called the "three poisons," they operate in our per- sonallives and on the political level. There are people we like, people we don't, and people we don't give a shit about. Racism, sexism, nationalism, and all the other "isms" are just fancy names for these attitudes, and war, poverty, neglect, and environmental de- struction are their result. The tragedy of Africa is a tragedy of ignorance: as a world, we've decided we don't care very much about African people. If you don't believe that, consider how we'd be reacting if millions were dying of a preventable disease in Europe or North America. Ignorance is the sneaky poison. It's so easy to focus on the sufferings of war and greed, but the neglect caused by ignorance, at this particular point in history, is much greater. Thich Nhat Hanh and Stephen Lewis are telling us the same thing: our future depends on our ability to transcend the differences among people and feel all their happiness and suffering as our own. Two very different people-the Vietnamese Buddhist master and the polished Canadian diplomat-but they join in telling us what really matters in politics. -MELVIN MCLEOD SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2006 9