China is one of the places that I want to visit before I die. I have long been attracted to Chinese culture. The traditional architecture of temples, monasteries, neighborhoods and other historic buildings is stunning. The designs are classic yet are still some of the most unique in the world and the public gardens appear tranquil, relaxing and invigorating. Their written language is one of the most beautiful I have seen and with some of the oldest history in the world; China is a must for a historian like myself. They have produced some of the greatest thinkers of the human race and I adore Chinese traditional music. I honor it as being the birthplace of my tradition of Zen Buddhism. Yet, sadly this great country has fallen far from the days of celebrating Buddhism. Actually its government has fallen in that regard, not the people who I think would investigate Buddhism if allowed. As we all know, the government has been actively working to eradicate it from the culture for decades. The most obvious example being Tibet.
The irony with China blocking Buddhism is that Buddhism has much in common with the socialist mindset. It teaches interdependence, oneness and reliance upon each other. In fact, most monasteries seem to act as small communes!! The difference is that Buddhism is also inline with democracy. It values human rights, individual freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. So in many ways Buddhism represents the middle-path in politics--a little bit of socialism mixed with a little bit of democracy. This is a political mindset that is found in practice in Europe. Buddhism, however, also encourages a healthy dose of skepticism of the political system in general. In the end politics can and does cause a lot of suffering. It can easily lead to greed as people seek power to control and manipulate the masses for their own selfish gains. Too much politics is just as dangerous as ignoring it. So, in some ways I hesitate even bringing up politics in the same conversation as Buddhism. However, to not participate in voting and maintaining good government can easily lead to losing ones freedom to practice the relatively non-political religion of Buddhism in the first place.
I know that there are some Buddhists who think politics should be avoided altogether but with all due respect I think that's potentially, dangerously naive. In some ways it's ignoring reality and ignoring a big part of our daily lives to be mindful of how our leaders affect our daily decisions that we might not think much about otherwise. Like the freedom to just walk out your door and sit with your sangha, read a Buddhist themed book or visit a monastery for a retreat or other services. Or the freedom to write online about your beliefs to share with others without censorship. Yes, politics can be ugly and cause a lot of harm. That said, however, to retreat from it completely is veering off the middle-path to the point where such denial can literally jeopardize the very basic freedom of religion that you enjoy and center your life around. It's not about protecting Buddhism because it too is impermanent but rather it's about protecting each others right to basic human dignity, decency and free will.
So, I couldn't be happier that U.S. President Barack Obama will be meeting with the Dalai Lama. It is a powerful symbol to the world and to oppressed peoples everywhere that someone, somewhere is standing for freedom. That there are still places in the world that celebrate diversity and encourage religious expression. The light is on shining in the darkness to guide and give hope to those without freedom. I know that the United States has interests with China that might be hurt a bit with this visit but as an American I would rather upset China than abandon those suffering unnecessarily in political oppression.
PHOTO CREDIT: His Holiness the Dalai Lama taken by Manish Swarup for AP News.