As a student of Buddhist philosophy and practice for the last 15 years, I like to think that I have a relatively firm grasp on the topic. In that 15 years, I got to spend years in intensive study but I also had space to wander away and back into the Buddhist world, giving me a unique perspective. For that reason, I don’t describe myself as a Buddhist outright, but I do admire or respect Buddhist practices. I think Buddhist ideas around awakening are particularly compelling and the mediation systems that Buddhism contains are its greatest gift to humanity, something not found in any other scientific or religious system.
Having said all that, I do have what I believe to be serious criticisms of Buddhism. One I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is its inability to create a modern political philosophy, and for that reason cannot be a powerful political actor unlike the Judeo-Christian religions. Because Buddhism blames the individual for their own misery, it has a hard time looking outwards at what problems lie in institutions and larger society. It is handicapped in offering systemic criticisms and novel approaches to society.
So let’s get into what I mean by this.
Fundamental to the 4 noble truths is the idea that one can overcome the inherent suffering of life by living well and doing personal practices that change one’s mind permanently. The seed here is that life and the architecture around life causes suffering and the solution is to change oneself. It’s a powerful model. But it therefore does not have a sophisticated view of the architecture of life, namely the organizations and institutions that create its circumstances. The main cause and effect is laid on shoulders of the individual. It is up to you to remove your suffering and it not anyone else’s problem. This is why, rather than attempting to augment the society’s and worlds it encounters, historically Buddhism tends to retreat to its own private societies. Like monastic life and the lay life that encircles it.
In other words, the fundamental DNA of Buddhism is unable to propose a new society, but merely to propose a way to retreat from it (and the group of people that support that retreat).
You could argue that there are examples of Buddhism actually having a significant impact on a society. In the case of India, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and enacted major reforms to his empire. With Japan, the first constitution it ever had contained plenty of Buddhist ideas. With China, it was many times a state religion that dominated the lives of the majority of citizens. But with Ashoka, the structure of the society did not change. In Japan, Buddhism merely became the soul of a Confucian structure. And in China, ultimately Buddhism became either sidelined or subservient to larger neo-Confucian trends, despite being a state religion and leaving a deep imprint on its intellectual development. To round this off, in India, the origin place of Buddhism, it ultimately got reabsorbed by Hinduism, effectively nulling its original criticism of its original tenets, ultimately ineffective at tearing down the very framework it was born to disrupt.
With the case of Christianity, in stark contrast, its proselytizing nature has wreaked havoc on institutions and societies, creating major political institutions like the Catholic church and movements like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This eventually leads down the path to the inevitable separation of church and state, a response to the pervasive political threat of the church, and the eventual birth of secularism as counterpoint. Islam almost anticipates this, creating a philosophy that requires a weaving between state and religion. Both these major religions start from a position where the world is flawed and there is evil in the world, and it is upon those true believers to carry the torch in this world to bring more people to the side of light. Sin is my fault, but it is also the fault of the devil and the world full of temptations. The world must therefore be changed.
I think these things, in essence, are things that Buddhism could learn from. Despite Buddhism having massive appeal to the sciences and secularism, it really has nothing to contribute to politics and economics.
But maybe this isn’t Buddhism’s problem really. After all, its gift to humanity is the systematic approach to the mind via meditative practices, an expressly internal endeavor. It did not spend the last several millennia exploring external endeavors. That’s why it has nothing significant to add to our political world.
My question is, will something unique come out of a genuine encounter between Buddhism and modern economic and political theory? It would require quite a mind to do so since the fundamental assumption in how our society operates (especially reflected in the legal system) is that a person is fully accountable for their actions, after a certain age and mental state. In Buddhism, there is certainly a similar assumption, in that a person has agency to change themselves, but it also picks apart even the idea of a self. How do you build a societal infrastructure based on the lack of a self? It’s a tall order.