Buddhism and the Limits of Freedom…

Self-control is a valuable tool, a wonderful trait, and a noble quality. But control of others? Not so much. And this is a sticking point for many Western Buddhists, who cringe at the thought of any sort of control, it being anathema to the Western traditions of freedom and democracy, however ill-conceived and ill-defined. This obsession with freedom arose in response to the tyranny of rulers, so that is the sordid background upon which our story must unfold. It is also the justification for many a disproportionate response which must then invite further repercussions, in an almost endless back-and-forth see-saw of emotions and cataclysms which define the modern history of humankind.

For the Buddhist, the issue is more personal, and depends heavily upon the difference between the freedom FROM and the freedom TO. Buddhist freedom and Western democratic freedom both arise out of the freedom from, but at some point the Western notion found insufficient satisfaction from that, and so quickly claimed inalienable rights for the freedom to, the disastrous results of which can be seen in the past year’s ineffective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has currently killed more than 580,000 Americans—and counting. But the good Buddhist knows that this kind of freedom is hubris, and folly, and unimportant in the greater scheme of things.

In fact no one must of necessity do anything in this life and in this world. There is no call to action, as we imagine and are taught in all the ‘e-commerce’ lessons for maximizing profit. But the prophets of Buddhism had something else in mind. And that is perhaps most easily seen in the practice of meditation, arguably the ‘bed-rock’ to all Indian religious and philosophical traditions, even more than the highly imaginative beliefs in rebirth, past lives, and a generation-jumping karma of retribution. The meditative pose is the personification of the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. Unfortunately this can also lead to passivity, which is not always the best path forward.

The potential for passivity was the stumbling block for me into Buddhism for many years, enough to keep me away as I pursued many other avenues to fulfillment. But I always kept Buddhism in the back of my mind, and at some point I, and the world, were ready for it. For at this point in the world, to do nothing is probably better than all the many machinations and manipulations that have brought us to a point of no return ecologically. The world is not in danger from the predations of lions and tigers and bears. The world, and especially our species, are most in danger from the predations of humans, we ourselves unwitting participants in self-annihilation.

But we can control that, if we can control ourselves, no matter that the word is anathema in the West, but which any Asian monk can quickly attest. And when American Buddhists can meditate unflinching for two to three hours at the time, then I think that they will be able to attest to that, also. After all, it’s nothing more than Right Actions, samma kammanta, isn’t it? And that’s  the kind of karma that I think we can all agree on, the karma of doing the right thing, whether you ever saw the movie or not. Too much freedom is a dangerous thing. And too little is stifling. There must be a sweet spot somewhere in between, a middle path of redemption.