Craving, Karma, And A Seat In Parliament

Copyright © by Len Holman, 4/11/12


  This slight and delicate woman, under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until 2010, and who has won election to Myanmar’s parliament along with 43 others of her party is—according to my calculations either in deep trouble, or is refashioning Buddhism so that her next life will be all saffron and flowers. 

  First, a brief primer:  Buddhists, at base, believe that all life, in its various permutations, is suffering.  I don’t mean—necessarily--the kind of suffering you feel during and after root canal, or the kind you feel watching your kid fall off his first bike for the tenth time, although these are part of it all.  I mean that life is filled with the lacks, the losses, the disappointments, failures, and the unfulfilled expectations of success, and all that makes one suffer.  Suffering has a root cause.  It is craving, and craving is a basic human enterprise.  We all crave affection and respect and success and rewards of all kinds.  We crave sex and steak and a home by the ocean and a car that starts right up—even on those frigid mornings.  We crave a fulfilling job and enough money—not only to pay our bills—but to go to Paris and buy éclairs. 

  So if craving causes suffering, what do we do about it?  Simple: we cut out the craving, using the venerable eight-fold path of right thinking, right conduct, right livelihood, right speaking, right intention, right effort, meditation and mindfulness.  When a person can live correctly, live in the present, shun craving, and clear the mind, then suffering is abated and life takes on a glow, a peace and tranquility that Bernie Madoff or Bill Gates never experienced. 

  Of course, this is a real problem for politicians.  They crave. They have to crave, otherwise they couldn’t do what politicians need to do—even if that craving is of an altruistic kind.  This craving is no problem for the likes of Donald Trump or Saddam or even Meg Whitman, the fairly new CEO of HP, who craves to get her company’s stock price out of the toilet.  But Suu Kyi is a Buddhist—and that IS a problem.  It’s not that a Buddhist can’t do good deeds, or want to, so much as the wanting must be a piece of the whole, meditative, mindful life.  A failure, a disappointment, a loss of a parliament seat, a jail sentence, house arrest for years, and/or a general thwarting of the desire to be in service to one’s country—all must be taken as events which are observed, experienced and allowed to pass.  One must not dwell or cling, for at the end of that road lies suffering, and a bad karmic outcome. 

  So Suu Kyi must be careful that she doesn’t end up being born as a lower life form.  Trump wouldn’t have to worry about that because no matter in what form he would be born, he would STILL think he was god-like. In our political system, no politician gets to dip into the honey bucket of cash unless he or she WANTS to, really WANTS to.  No politician is worried about his or her karma.  He or she is worried about a) winning or retaining the seat she has and/or b) raising money for the NEXT election.  No breathing meditation required.  The problem for Aung San Suu Kyi is that politics is, by definition, a worldly pursuit.  A politician must engage with the dirty, and dirtying, business of alliance-making, money-raising, deal-making, and the grungy day-to-day struggle to maintain balance and purity and good intensions. A tough task. 

  Can a “devout Buddhist” (as Suu Kyii is called by news agencies) navigate the worldly, gritty world of politics and keep herself above it at the same time?  Can she negotiate without compromising her principles?  Can any politician do that?  It’s one thing to actually HAVE principles, but have to adjust them to “get things done.”  It’s another to have immutable principles as part of one’s faith and STILL operate in the political world without giving in to the temptations of that world, justifying the slide away from your karmic beliefs with the idea that you’re “helping” your depressed nation.  She will crave, and has for some time, “democracy” for Myanmar.  She will crave peace and security.  She will crave stability and a release of the chokehold the military has had on her country for so long. 

  When she doesn’t get what she craves, when Myanmar’s progress does not match her hopes, will she be able to let it pass?  Will she observe her feelings, her disappointments, her anger, and allow them to dissipate, as a diaphanous bubble does?  If she cannot do that, if she cannot meditate, follow her breathing, relax her craving and eliminate her suffering, what will she do?  Will her crisis of faith upend her world?  And if it does, will she retire to a secluded place, away from the world she so longed to be a part of and so longed to improve, to refresh her faith, to remember what the Buddha taught? 

  Or instead, will she do what any politician would do and tell herself that what she is doing, what she WILL do, is for the greater good—no matter the impact on her values and her karma?  Reconciling the particulars of her faith and her desire for a better world is going to be a test for her.  If mindfulness is a basic tenet of Buddhism, as the examined life was for Socratic philosophy, the when she does this—in a quiet moment, away from the madding crowd, the adulation, the down-and-dirty of politics—what will she think?  How will she act?  Will she still be a Buddhist in a year?  Or five?  What is more important to a Buddhist?  Passing a law to get the garbage picked up or living a life of peace and serenity, and moving up—in her next life—to a higher plane?  Ok, so that’s why there are no dedicated Buddhists running for President in the U.S.


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