I am writing this in mid-October, three weeks before the November election. However, regardless of its outcome, I think we can assume that future historians will likely look back on 2016 as a year in which we observed a most contentious presidential campaign.
Our essentially two-party American democracy has a certain adversarial nature built in. Still, the level of incivility we witnessed this year was unprecedented. Buddhism can shed light on the root causes of this incivility.
The Buddha himself lived 2,500 years ago in the 5th century before the Common Era and the essence of his enlightenment was a singular, transformative insight. But contrary to what some may think, he did not immediately realize some kind of wonderful, “warm and fuzzy” compassion for all life. Initially, according to his own statements, his enlightenment can be characterized as, to use one teacher’s word, an “endarkment.”
In other words, what the Buddha realized was that the root of his experience of difficulty — of not just the impermanent and unpredictable nature of life, but the disappointment of things not going his way — was actually self-caused. He realized that it was the unawake, limited, and judgmental view of his own ego-self that was causing his “friction” with the reality of impermanence.
Paradoxically, with this endarkment, humbly taking responsibility for his own suffering, the now enlightened Buddha became tremendously dynamic, creative, and compassionate. With the ego-self “out of the way,” he awoke to the transcendent truth that, though we think of ourselves as separate, unique “selves,” we are actually all living as part of one interdependent whole.
The Buddha’s insight can help us understand the contentiousness and incivility we witnessed in the 2016 presidential election. Suffering or difficulty of all kinds, including the discomfort caused when one “bombshell” after another was exposed, or when constant, unwarranted allegations were made, all arises from the limited, relative nature of human “wisdom.” I have “my” wisdom and you have “your” wisdom; if yours differs from mine, there’s something wrong with you.
In contrast, as we’ve seen, the Buddha’s wisdom is transcendent; it is selfless. Understanding the transcendent nature of the Buddha’s wisdom — being able to see the turmoil of the world of politics through the clarifying lens of Buddhist wisdom — can have a calming influence in our lives.
In any case, regardless of the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, there will be difficulties going forward. The loser of the election will obviously face the challenge of accepting responsibility for the outcome. As the Buddha taught, we cause our own suffering. But the winner will also face an equally difficult challenge.
We can only hope that our next president, guided by a wisdom that transcends politics, will be able to heal the negativity, animosity, and incivility of the 2016 campaign and bring all of us, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or cultural background, together.
Submittted on behalf of the Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Federation. Rev. Peter Hata is currently assigned to the Higashi Honganji head temple in Los Angeles. He’s also a musician and one of the original members of the band Hiroshima, with whom he recorded albums and toured throughout the U.S. and Japan. In addition, he holds a master’s degree in music and has taught a variety of graduate and undergraduate music courses at Cal State L.A. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.