Buddha and Conservatism
By Jason Lim
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, quoted Barry Goldwater, the father of modern American conservative movement, in his recent column titled, ``The Social Animal," as saying, ``Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development.''
He continued, ``The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being … Conservatism's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?''
In refuting Goldwater's individualist description of human nature, Brooks points to cognitive scientists who have shown that human ``decision-making is powerfully influenced by our social contexts ― by the frames, biases and filters that are shared subconsciously by those around … Geneticists have shown that our behavior is influenced by our ancestors and the exigencies of the past."
He wrote, ``Behavioral economists have shown the limits of the classical economic model, which assumes that individuals are efficient, rational, utility-maximizing creatures. Psychologists have shown that we are organized by our attachments. Sociologists have shown the power of social networks to affect individual behavior."
Brooks argues that our decision-making depends upon the social and cultural contexts in which we are embedded. In fact, we can't really make a decision apart from what we have learned from our community, institutions, and social fabric. Our social norm.
It's a paradox. We have free will. Therefore we can choose any course of action. However, our choice will always depend on our ingrained sense of the social norm that acts upon our subconscious to steer our decisions. Then are we truly free to choose?
After all, true free will is meaningless without the freedom from influence, both conscious and subconscious. Then does this mean that individualist philosophy of modern American conservatism is based on a false assumption: that an individual can choose freely?
Funnily enough, this paradox was the same issue that Buddha was tackling more than 2,500 years ago.
Buddha explored this question through his Doctrine of Dependent Origination, which he explained: ``When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases."
In other words, something happens only because there were conditions to make it happen. Nothing occurs without a reason. And if those conditions are taken away, then that something will not continue to happen. In short, cause and effect.
Such is the nature of a conditioned existence. We live in an endless web of cause and effect where phenomena come and go because conditions exist for them. Our lives are also part of this network of conditionality, including birth, death, thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions.
Buddhist conditionality encompasses the social norm that Brooks wrote about. It includes all the things that made you into who you are today, everything from the place and time of your birth to your upbringing to your education.
All the things that happened to you in which you had no say, like who your parents are, to those things that you chose to have happen to you, like deciding to try out for the football team.
All the experiences and relationships that ever touched your life create a deeply ingrained set of conditions ― norms ― that make you decide how you decide, most often without even thinking.
In his bestseller, ``Blink," Malcolm Gladwell describes this part of the brain that leaps to conclusions and makes snap judgments, ``the adaptive subconscious." He compares it to the automatic piloting system on modern jet airplanes that makes critical decisions quickly and efficiently without conscious input from the human pilots.
In Buddhism, this is called, ``karma." Karma is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern philosophy, wrapped up in layers of mumbo-jumbo mysticism.
However, it basically refers to the ingrained and subconscious pattern of decision-making. In short, karma is habit. More specifically, it's your decision-making habit that lives in your subconscious. Karma is the auto-pilot of your life.
Therefore, when sages teach that your life is determined by your karma, they are telling the obvious, because your decisions will inevitably inform your life. And if you have a bad decision-making habit, then you won't have a happy life, because you will be making decisions that are bad for you.
And if you are confused why your life is not turning out to be as good as you had hoped, none other than Einstein has the best answer: ``The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.''
Unfortunately, we don't often know where our auto-pilot is taking us. We don't even know we have a control panel through which we can change our settings. Heck, we don't even know that we have the auto-pilot engaged!
Recognizing that you have an auto-pilot and that you can control it is, in simplest Buddhist terms, enlightenment. It's a matter of breaking your subconscious habit of decision-making.
This is the true meaning of freedom that Buddha sought to teach: freedom from yourself, freedom from your own karma. In this context, the only question that truly matters is: Are we maximizing our freedom to choose today?
Goldwater wasn't too far off the mark.
Jason Lim is a 2007-2008 fellow at Harvard Korea Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.