Category Archives: Politics

Buddhist Political Philosophy (Karma)

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Karma. It’s a word that brings up ideas of cosmic retribution coming to us from past lives. It’s a metaphysical, even scary sounding concept, but not one you’d use to make sense of world affairs.

Personally, I can’t imagine explaining world affairs without karma. Everything in the world arises as a result of a set of causes and conditions and from everything that happens or comes into being, new causes and conditions arise.

Karma is the principle of actions and consequences. From a Buddhist perspective, karma refers specifically to human intention and the action accompanying that intention.

The Buddhist theory of karma assumes that:

  1. Human beings have agency;
  2. Human beings act by exercising their will;
  3. The actions of human beings have consequences for them.

In Buddhism, human will is subject to many physical, mental, emotional and environmental influences. Political entities are even more complex. The nation-state, for example, is made up of territory, population, government and international recognition as such.

It’s government, however, that ultimately influences what the state is and what it does. What government doesn’t affect its own people through its laws and policies? What countries don’t affect others through their choices in foreign policy?

Everything that becomes, or changes must do so owing to some cause;
for nothing can come to be without a cause
(Plato).

Karma also explains how the actions of nation-states affect both themselves and the world. The events of 9-11 and the policies of the Bush Administration squashed civil rights at home and devastated Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of Donald Trump resulted from many conditions, including a severe recession, widening economic disparities, and the American electoral system.

But karma isn’t just something that happens to nations; it’s something that nations create. Getting the causes “right” moreover, produces the right effects. Economic growth and development in China, for example, came through a well-planned economic policy and strategy.

The state can produce good karma, that is it can act morally and produce positive consequences, e.g. prosperity, peace and stability at home and elsewhere. In Buddhism, this comes through the state following its dharma, that is in fulfilling its moral purpose of relieving people of distress and enabling their well-being.

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Buddhist Political Philosophy: Dharma

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Dharma is of fundamental importance to Buddhist political philosophy.

Dharma comes from the Sanskrit “dhri” which means to support, to sustain and to uphold. It refers to the universal moral law which is also identical with our essentially moral nature as human beings. Acting in accordance with dharma means being good and doing good to others.

Socially, dharma is realized when we fulfill our obligations to one another. In Buddhism, this means treating one another with empathy, compassion and in a spirit of love, fellowship and brotherhood.

Politically, dharma is moral governance. Good government in Buddhism is moral government, that which relieves the suffering of the people and enables their well-being. This is accomplished by laying a strong economic foundation for the people and and ruling in a spirit of benevolence, justice and non-violence.

History is full of examples of rulers acting in accordance with and implementing dharma. Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE) and Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE) proclaimed respect for all religions throughout their empires. The Han Dynasty sought to relieve famine through a granary system, while the Buddhist period of Chinese history saw the establishment of hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and rest homes for the elderly.

… to be continued in Part III.

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My Discovery of Russia (Part III)

 

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Politics

Naturally, I was going to ask questions about politics and social issues in Russia. I was fortunate to discuss these questions with Dennis, my hostel mate in Moscow who was also Russia.

According to Dennis, Putin isn’t the highest power in Russia. He is in fact a frontman, manager and negotiator for Russia’s ruling families, those “oligarchs” who own major stakes in Russia’s oil, mining and telecommunications industries.

Still, Putin was everywhere. On every street stall and in every Metro station and souvenir shop, I saw his hulking muscles on rather tawdry looking T-shirts, mugs and even on Matryoshka dolls. One shop on Arbat Street in Moscow had a doll with Putin on the outside, and Trump on the inside …

I couldn’t tell how popular Putin really was. Dennis said that most of the younger generation had grown weary of him after his 18 years in power. Still, if anything, Putin struck me more as a symbol of Russian pride and manhood in standing up to the West.

On June 14, 2018, I took the train to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia and the site of the country’s great revolutions. I came here to see the history and I ended up learning more about Russia’s history of revolutions.

In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of political revolutionaries. I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood below, which marks the site of his assassination. In 1887, Lenin’s brother was executed for taking part in an attempted assassination of Emperor Alexander III.

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On June 17, 2018, I visited the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, one of the world’s greatest museums and the residence of Russia’s last czars respectively. In front of the Winter Palace is Palace Square (below). This was the site of the Russian Revolution of 1905 which created a legislative assembly and constitution for Imperial Russia.

On November 7, 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace from Palace Square. They forced the abdication of Nicholas II and created the Soviet Union.

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The Soviet Union ended in 1991. In August 1991, Communist hardliners within the Soviet Union attempted to overthrow the pro-reform Gorbachev and seize control of the government. The Russian people, under the leadership of Yeltsin, rose up and defeated that attempted coup.

Russia may be an authoritarian country, I thought, but Russians don’t take it lying down.

Gender and Sexuality

I was struck by how clearly the genders are demarcated in Russia.

The Russian men were jacked. They wore tight T-shirts and muscle shirts. The (younger) Russian women meanwhile often looked like Barbie dolls, wearing skimpy little tops and showing off as much leg as possible.

 

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I saw men and women holdings hands everywhere. It was a Barbie and Ken fantasy.

What I didn’t see were any gays or lesbians openly expressing their affection. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Russia, but “promoting” it in public is. I looked up some gay clubs in St. Petersburg, but when I found them, they were housed in dark, indiscreet buildings, with tinted windows and an intercom at the door.

 

 

 

 

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The End of Suffering: Buddhist Political Philosophy (Introduction)

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I’ve long been interested in the idea of a Buddhist political philosophy.

Buddhism has long been criticized for being unconcerned with political or social reality. Indeed, most books written on Buddhism in North America today deal with psychic subjects like meditation and mindfulness, while others (Buddha in the Boardroom and The Buddha on Wallstreet) align Buddhism with modern day capitalism.

These questions have failed to engage with the deeper questions of Buddhist philosophy. They have also failed to question the basic premises of our liberal-democratic capitalist system. Such questioning is even more pressing given the loss of public confidence in our institutions following years of war, conquest, financial crises, bank bailouts and demagogues.

Buddhist political philosophy offers a new way and timely of thinking about and imagining our political reality. I look forward to writing more about it here.

 

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Russia is a threat … or is it?

Putin Threat

Why does the United States perceive Russia as a threat?

Powerful countries like the United States have always viewed other powers (or rising powers) as threats. Athens felt threatened by the rise of Sparta. The United Kingdom and France historically viewed one another as threats, and both countries viewed a rising Germany as a threat on the road to World War I.

The threat of the “other” nation is also a matter of perception. Like individuals, nations find it difficult to perceive reality objectively. Their perceptions are instead processed through and conditioned by their own historical, nationalist and cultural beliefs and biases. The resulting distorted perception is taken as reality.

The United States’ perception of Russia is obscured by the shadow of the Cold War. The Soviet Union not only challenged the United States politically and militarily but was seen by the U.S. as ideologically threatening and unassimilable. Russia today is seen as openly defiant and dangerous. Whether it’s facing off against Washington over Syria, interfering in the U.S. election or refusing to democratize, Russia is large, powerful and plays by its own rules.

Is Russia a threat to the United States? This is largely a question of perception. Perhaps it’s only natural for the United States to view powerful countries like Russia (or rising powers like China) as threats to its own power. In Russia’s case, however, America’s perceptions are further clouded by memories, beliefs and assumptions arising from the Cold War. The result is a distorted view of Russia, the so-called threat.

– Thanks to Marco, a dear friend; and Bilal, a beloved nephew

 

 

 

 

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The Causes We Cherish

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Jagmeet Singh was interviewed yesterday on CBC Radio. The leader of the federal NDP was asked about a seminar he attended with the National Sikh Youth Federation in the U.K. in 2016. The organizer of the National Sikh Youth Federation, Shamsher Singh, was heard discussing the legitimacy of armed struggle by Sikhs in the creation of Khalistan.

In his radio interview, Singh condemned terrorism without condemning the Khalistan movement. He expressed sympathy with the pain and trauma suffered by Sikhs, while dodging any suggestion that the Khalistan movement was a terrorist movement.

Within hours, the internet was awash headlining Mr. Singh’s name with phrases like “Sikh separatist,” “blood hatreds” and “strange loyalties.”

The Khalistan movement was a violent and divisive movement. It bloodied the towns and villages of the East Punjab for nearly a decade. Its leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, turned Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, into a military stronghold. And the movement turned a generation of young Sikhs into militant separatists.

Murderous and divisive as its legacy has been, the Khalistan cause has long since fallen on the losing side of history. The Canadian media is right to question such causes or, as in the case of Singh, its suspected supporters. Yet the same also fails repeatedly to question those politicians who support “winning” causes like Israel, Saudi Arabia or Canada’s policies towards its own Aboriginal peoples.

Justin Trudeau illustrated this point last month when he visited India. Trudeau met with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a man whose government has become perhaps the worst violator of human rights in independent India’s history. In 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi presided over the worst anti-Muslim program in India since 1947. Since his becoming Prime Minister in 2014, India has witnessed widespread and repeated abuses of human rights and civil liberties.

Trudeau failed to condemn any of this, and the Canadian media failed to question Trudeau. His “loyalty” to Canadian values like human rights weren’t scrutinized. For Trudeau, unlike Singh, was on the winning side.

 

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India at 70

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This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

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