Most Americans—probably even most Buddhist Americans—think of Buddhism as a quietistic spirituality focused on either individual peace of mind or complete transcendence of the social and material worlds. The famous sociologist Max Weber called it a “specifically unpolitical and anti-political status religion,” and that’s the impression that has pretty much stuck ever since. So, it might surprise many people to learn just how preoccupied Buddhist texts are with at least one mundane, bread-and-butter public policy issue: taxes.
These texts also disabuse us of another misconception common among American Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike—that Buddhism is liberal. Robert Thurman argues, for example, that Nagarjuna’s Ratnavali promotes a “dharmic socialism” leading to a “welfare state;” but Nagarjuna is, along with the rest of these thinkers, far subtler—and far less conventional—than any party line would allow.
With the Bush tax cuts set to expire on 31 December 2010, congress delaying a vote on extending the cuts until after the midterm elections, and debate raging between—and, for Democrats, even within—the parties on whether to extend all, none, or some of the cuts, now seems like a perfect time to survey what Buddhist thinkers have had to say. Rather than serving as a liability, these thinkers’ cultural, political, and historical distance from us can give us some much-needed perspective. Let’s take a look.
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