Here’s where I think that Buddha might offer Mr. Obama – and posthumously, Mr. Niebuhr –a helping hand. Gautama the Buddha also recognized the tension between the “realism” of suffering (dukkha) that is caused by greed (tanha) on the one hand, and the “bold policy” of transformation through enlightenment, on the other.
But he placed his money (so to speak) and devoted his full energies to the transformation of individuals and of society that can come through awakening to our true nature, our Buddha-nature.
For Buddha, the reality of evil and the promise of awakening did not have a 50-50 chance. Albert Nolan has said somewhere in his Jesus before Christianity, that anyone who believes that good and evil have a 50-50 chance is an atheist. In this sense, Buddha was no atheist.
So I think Buddha would walk a middle path between Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr. (Okay, with a tilt toward Rauschenbusch.) He would hold up the promise, calling for our full commitment, that the individual and society do not have to stay the way they are; they do not have to be caught in the “poisons” of ignorance, greed, and hatred. But at the same time, he would tip his hat to Niebuhr in recognizing that we have to be mindful of the realities of ignorance and greed and hated. “Being mindful” means we have to be fully aware of them, analyze them carefully, engage them through “skillful means” (upaya) – in the assurance that they can be – yes, they can be – changed.
This past Saturday's New York Times pubished an article on the relationship of religion and politcs, focusing on, among other things, President Obama's religion. Of course, there's a Niebuhr connection. Key passage below:
What, exactly, is his brand of Christianity? If it is not hard to recognize, neither is it easily defined, to judge at least by his various discussions of the subject. There is, for instance, the “Call to Renewal” speechhe gave in Washington in 2006, in which he urged believers, whatever their faith, to question the morality of “a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it.”
This is not liberation theology, with its assertion that God favors the oppressed, but it does echo the Social Gospel, the movement that a century ago called for Christianity to “add its moral force to the social and economic forces making for a nobler organization of society” with churches actively ameliorating “the burden of poverty,” in the words of the movement’s leader, Walter Rauschenbusch.
And yet Mr. Obama is also an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who rejected what he considered the naïve moralism of the Social Gospel. From Niebuhr, Mr. Obama has said, he got the message “that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”