A Kinder, Gentler Nation
Six Invitations from Buddhism
by Jay McDaniel
I borrow the phrase "kinder, gentler nation" from the 41st President of the United States: George H. W. Bush. He was president from 1989-1993.
In his Inaugural Address he said that we Americans were in "a moment rich with promise" and that we could use American strength as "a force for good."
What is a force for good? From a Whiteheadian perspective the strength that is most important is not military or economic, but rather moral and spiritual. It is what political scientists call "soft power."
George H. W. Bush believed in soft power. Part of this is because he was -- and is -- a Christian. He believed that soft power is much more powerful than hard power.
Please understand. He was responsible for many deaths, as are we all in many ways. There is something tragic in each and every violent death. Gloating over killing has no place.
But he was not a gloater. In public he rarely demonized the other side as if it were evil. I suspect that this is how he truly feels. If this is the case, I think he was -- and is -- a wise man. Those of us who live in the United States have much to learn much from his temperament and his phrase "kinder, gentler nation." Buddhism can help us.
Beyond Spiritual Property Rights
Happily, we can learn from Buddhism without becoming Buddhists. A growing number of Americans are Buddhist and that is fine. But even more people, including Christians and Jews and Muslims, are learning from Buddhism without becoming Buddhists.
This is true to the non-sectarian spirit of much North American Buddhism. Most North American Buddhists are not covetous of their wisdom. They say we can learn from Buddhism while belonging to other religions or to no religion. There are no spiritual property rights.
In what follows I share some lures for feeling that we receive from Buddhism. I borrow the phrase "lure for feeling" from Whitehead. He saw ideas as invitations, not dogmas. What follows are six invitations.
1. Buddhism invites us to enjoy non-attachment to fixed views. If we enjoy the fruits of non-attachment, we can still hold convictions. We can still believe in justice and freedom, in compassion and peace. We can still believe in small government or large government or something in-between. But we will be flexible in our approach to life; we will listen to other people who have views contrary to our own; and we will be willing to change our minds in light of persuasive evidence. We will be more open-minded and open-hearted, less rigid and dogmatic.
2. Buddhism encourages us to enjoy mindfulness in the
present moment. This mindfulness includes the practice of listening to other people on their own terms and for their own sake, in undistracted ways, without always needing to complete their sentences or interrupt them with agendas of our own. It makes for good journalism and good citizenship. Such listening isimportant when we are with others with whom we disagree. It creates a bond of friendship that is deeper than our differences.
3. Buddhism reminds us that we live in a world of inter-being and mutual-becoming. No person is an island, and no nation is an island either. If we are inwardly enlivened by a sense of inter-being and mutual-becoming, we will want to share in one another's destinies, including those with whom we disagree and those in other parts of the world. We will remember that we are all in the same boat, that we are on a journey together. We will look for win-win situations and become more collaborative than competetive.
4. Buddhism discourages demonizing others. It reminds us that all human beings, ourselves included, suffer from the three poisons of greed, hatred, and self-deception. As we become aware of these poisons, including in ourselves, we realize that we are not better than others nor worse than others, but in the same boat, struggling with the same temptations. We avoid reducing people to "enemies" and "friends."
5. Buddhism invites us to recognize that human ideas, including ideas such as America, are social constructs. What is real from a Buddhist perspective, as from the perspective which informs many articles in this website, are actual occasions of experience as enjoyed and suffered by living beings. A recognition of the primacy of experience can help us overcome the worst aspects of nationalism.
There is a place in life for national pride: that is, for pride in what is best about the United States and criticism of what is worst. It is good for citizens of the United States to wave the American flag from time to time, just as it is good for Chinese and Indians and Greeks and British to wave their flags. But there is no place for an unkind and ungentle nationalism that seeks to elevate the well-being of the United States over the well-being of other nations, or which demeans other nations in the interests of promoting the United States. We need to hold our flags with a relaxed grasp, and celebrate the flags of others, too.
6. Buddhism invites a sense of responsibility to future generations. Buddhists tell us that, if we really understand
inter-being, we will feel a sense of compassion for all living beings, living and not-yet living. We will want to act in ways that protect other living beings and make possible their well-being: present and future generations alike.
In this election season many Americans talk about the need to draw down the debt. Drawing down the debt is one way of protecting future generations. Using clean energy, and reducing carbon emissions, is another. Preserving habitats for animals is still another.
Can these lessons be learned in other ways? Of course. But there is no reason to restrict our sources. As Americans seek to become a kinder, gentler nation, we need all the wisdom we can get, including from Buddhism. We can thank Buddhism for offering us guidance, and we can thank former President Bush for giving us a phrase which, if taken seriously, provides a moral and spiritual compass for the future.
A kinder, gentler nation in service to a kinder, gentler world. It is a trans-religious hope that can be nourished by all of us, each in our way, moment by moment. Let's get started.