writing on suffering and awakening

How Buddhism can help us bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans

There is an ugliness in America today that is frightening. People from different backgrounds and ideologies disdain one another, the president routinely describes certain groups of people as less than human, and at the border, our government is taking children away from people who have come here seeking asylum.

The shining city on the hill is closing its gates and turning on itself.

We don’t all need to agree with or even like each other. But if we can’t see one another as human beings, we’re in real trouble. So I believe the time is now for all of us to step up and learn to see ourselves in all our fellows.

As a small piece of that effort, perhaps we could start by recognizing that (deep down) both of our political parties are trying to offer us freedom from human suffering. There is a lot of crazy piled on top, but the roots are solid. There are good and decent reasons why people could have spent their lives supporting either party.

What do I mean? At their best, the Democrats stand for the idea that we’re all in this together—that freedom from suffering means looking out for each other. At their best, the Republicans remind us that we each have the power to determine the course of our lives—that freedom is up to each of us.

In short, at it’s best, much of our politics is a debate between collective and personal responsibility. But it’s not a zero-sum game: these concepts are complementary, not contradictory. If we can see that, maybe we can see that beneath our political conflicts are good, human intentions pointing us towards freedom.

The story of the Buddha is illustrative.

The bones of the story are simple. The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who lived in the 5th century BCE. Raised in a palace, Siddhartha grew up indulging in pleasure and luxury. He had everything anyone could ever want.

However, one night, curious about the world outside the palace walls, Siddhartha snuck out to explore the surrounding city. There, he encountered beggars on the streets, families going hungry and the bodies of the dead.

He saw human suffering clearly for the first time, and was shaken. He also realized that he was suffering as well—he too would grow old and die. His wealth and power didn’t make him free.

Siddhartha wanted to help, but he didn’t know what to do. Needing answers, he left the palace and sought out the wisest teachers of his time. Following their guidance, he practiced extreme austerity, giving up all the pleasures of his youth—wealth, sex, companionship, even food.

He put himself through a lot. But no matter how hard he tried, he didn’t feel free.

Finally, near death from starvation, Siddhartha came to the outskirts of a small village. Exhausted, he took shelter under the leaves of a tree. A woman from the village saw him and brought him food. Siddhartha was so hungry that he ate despite himself. Restored, he began meditating.

Every day, the woman fed him, and every day, Siddhartha meditated. After seven weeks, he experienced a sense of perfect clarity and saw himself for exactly what he was. He saw that there was nothing to fear—not change, not death, not any of it—and in doing so found that he was free. Soon he began teaching others, and people started calling him the Buddha, which means awakened one.

How does this relate to our politics? The story of the Buddha shows us that if we really want freedom from suffering, we can’t choose between collective and personal responsibility. We have to make room for both.

Living in his father’s palace didn’t give the Buddha freedom. Neither did rejecting his humanity by denying himself essentials like food and shelter. It was by walking the middle path of embracing his innate power and accepting his human vulnerability that he became free.

In other words, Siddhartha became the Buddha through his own dedicated practice and because the woman and her village supported him. It couldn’t happen without both. If, as the Buddha teaches, we really all have freedom inside us, then we all have to be the Buddha and the woman who fed him in order to touch it.

I don’t know exactly how this translates into policy. But I do know that it means we should fundamentally honor both the Democratic desire to love and serve each other and the Republican urge to take responsibility for our own being. We need to hold both in our hearts and minds in order to be free.

Ian Cooper