Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’m deeply inspired by the Milk Tea Alliance and the movement for democracy throughout Southeast Asia. What I witness in their movements are the most vibrant and life-giving forms of liberation and community-building I’ve seen since the Occupy movement in the last decade. They are fighting for the world they want to live in, a world I want to live in.
Since my visits to post-Soviet Poland and the Czech Republic in 1992-1994, I have been searching for a political philosophy and praxis that I can live by. Soviet communism failed to deliver social justice and well-being for it’s people, turning them into cogs in a Soviet military-industrial machine that destroyed both people and nature. But Capitalism, triumphant at the fall of the Soviet regime, is the cancer that is destroying human souls, human lives, and life on this planet.
There had to be a “third way.” At first I thought I had found this “third way” in Green politics, and I would say that’s still true in many ways. I still espouse much of what Green politics values and works towards. But the failure of Green politics is that it has not articulated clearly enough the connection between the integrity of the natural world and the well-being of all human beings and species, the right of all human beings and species to well-being, development, equality and dignity.
So I looked at socialism in all its forms, communism, and anarchism. For a long time I considered myself to be an anarchist. But that epithet has worn thin for me. Like communism and marxism, anarchism becomes a war of words, an argument about ‘purity’ and ideal states, dreams of a utopia that one must be wiling to die for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there are no ideal states. There is no Utopia, there is no end of problems that have to be solved, inequalities that must be rectified, harms that must be held accountable, wounds that must be healed. I learned this from Buddhism and the four truths, which I understand now to be not a linear path, but a continuous cycle that yields more healing and greater liberation with each iteration.
What I learned from nature and systems theory is that the way of nature is not perfect or static homeostasis, but dynamic equilibrium. There will always be forces and imbalances that shift and destabilize ecosystems into chaotic energy states, and transform them into new states of dynamic equilibria, new ecosystems. Dynamic equilibrium is a continuous cycle of life that allows living species and ecosystems to adapt to ever-changing environments and evolve. If everything was perfect, nothing would evolve, everything would stay exactly the same. If everything was perfect when life began over three billion years ago, we would not be here today. There never was a Garden of Eden where everything was perfect. There is no Heaven. Impermanence, continuous change and evolution is the law of nature.
That’s the kind of thinking that prompts me to revise my political views and espouse, once again, democracy. Democracy is, literally and in practice, not an “ism.” It is never an end state. There is no particular place or state that Democracy arrives at, no utopia, so it is not a “means to an end.” Democracy is a process of collective decision-making; it is only a process.
Furthermore, there are as many different forms of democracy as there are forms of socialism, communism, anarchism and green politics. You have to define, discuss, and even debate, what Democracy means to you and to the many collectives that participate. Defining what Democracy is is part of the process of Democracy itself. The definition of Democracy contests who participates, how they participate, who has power and how power is shared, and what the process of deliberation should be. That definition is never stable, it is always contested. Democracy is always in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
But what I find so inspiring about the Milk Tea Democracy movements in Southeast Asia is that Democracy is so dynamic. It is empowering people who were otherwise unseen and unknown in the world, empowering the powerless. It releases huge amounts of human energy and creativity. It massively increases communication, generates new ideas and forms new collectives. It forms new networks of social connection and relays of action that seem to come from everywhere at once. There is no center, only nodes that activate for a time and constantly shift throughout the network.
It’s become clear to me that I will never know how to “end Capitalism” or all the other “isms” that plague human societies. But I do know what kind of community I want to live in, what kind of world I want to live in. I want to live in a Democracy, a process of dynamic equilibrium, a Democracy that is as vital, dynamic and alive as what we see in Southeast Asia today.
The Milk Tea Alliance for Democracy movements are taking place in cultures and countries that have large, even majority, Buddhist populations. People of all faiths are deeply involved in this process, but as an erstwhile Buddhist, I am concerned with the effect that this massive Democracy movement might have on the culture of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, still the cradle of Buddhism, which in turn could have a significant impact on Buddhism world-wide. As with Capitalism and all the other “isms”, I don’t know how to fix Buddhism either. But I do know what kind of Buddhism I want to practice: Buddhism as a Democracy, as a process of collective decision-making that nurtures an energized and creative community, that empowers the powerless, that continuously evolves through a process of dynamic equilibrium.