What the Buddha and Adolf Hitler Taught Me about Compassion

I am very grateful to my in-law family for teaching me about Buddhism – and for teaching me about Buddhism, not merely theoretically or academically or discursively, but by living it out. Some are devout Buddhists – assuming that is not an oxymoron – and others are more casual. But all are real in the sense that Buddhist teachings, with whatever fervor they may be exemplified, inform their lives. In particular, I am grateful for what they teach me in terms of the lived reality of the supreme Buddhist value of universal compassion.  So you can imagine my astonishment when, while pursuing my several-months-long reading of Mein Kampf, I found that the improbable juxtaposition of Adolf Hitler’s political autobiography and Buddhism afforded me a very practical, and intimately personal, insight into how I was falling grievously short on the practice of compassion, as contained in Buddhist teaching (the dharma).

My greatest compassion deficit, I realized, was manifest vis a vis people who, either directly or by default, voted for Donald Trump.  I want to make it clear at the outset that this modest mea culpa in no way whatsoever lessens in any sense or to any degree the vehemence with which I disagree with their choice.  I still consider the election of 2016 the political equivalent of the 9/11 attacks.  I still disagree with their choice, passionately, militantly.  The difference is that now I understand.  Or at least, now I understand more.  Trump voters were – and mostly still are – frightened and desperate, frightened and desperate – yes, to be sure – partly for reasons of economics, but also partly for reasons of ideology. And the two sets of reasons tend to potentiate one another.

People, for example, Michael Moore, often comment on the desperation of people in the Rust Belt. What usually goes unmentioned is that there are two Rust Belts, not just one.  There is the obvious economic Rust Belt occasioned by globalism- and technology-driven job losses and the decay of the once-great middle class. ("Retrain", you and your Republican BFFs say? Really? Try being a 60-year-old steelworker with 35 years in a Pennsylvania mill who is now faced with the task of trying to learn from a standing start to program in C# with dot-Net object classes or Python or relational-data-base design or internet security protocols -- and being interviewed for a 12-hour-a-day, 6-days-a-week job doing software development by barefoot managers, sometimes younger than your kids, who only learned to shave last month. Then gimme a call or text me and we'll talk.) But there is also an ideological Rust Belt, comprising people, often in rural areas and in the "fly-over", middle parts of the country, who, quite candidly, no longer recognize their own Nation, the Nation where Christianity was once the undisputed religious paradigm, where marriage was invariably heterosexual, the majority-white Nation, where it was possible and even customary to spend one’s whole professional life with a single company from which one would retire with a respectable pension, etc., etc. I personally and enthusiastically support the secularization of the culture, the religious diversity, LGBTQ marriage equality, et al., but regardless of how one evaluates all those changes as “good” or “bad”, the changes have sometimes been wrenching. We can debate all that, issue by issue, elsewhere. What is beyond debate is that those changes have caused suffering both financial and psychological – often even spiritual, judging by anomalous increases in the suicide rate among some middle-aged people – in an appreciable segment of the American community, which translates into a desire to “Take our country back”, the country as it existed before those seismic changes occurred. The fact that, in critical respects, the reality they want “back” was purely fictitious is beside the point. The desire to cling to that perceived reality is quite real.

One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering, understood as discontent, “antsi-ness,” apprehension, and a consequent desire to cling onto a certain stage of one’s perceived reality.  “Suffering” does not only refer to, e.g., the way Sen. John McCain suffered at the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam war – though that is certainly one way to suffer. Rather, suffering, in the specifically Buddhist sense of dukkha also includes that gnawing sense of discontent, of not being at ease inside one’s own skin or inside one’s own life, of the desire to live in a  golden age in the past or in an anticipated golden age in  the future.  Or suffering may take the form of a piercing nostalgia for past experiences of mystical rapture, experiences that may indeed not be merely fictions arising from frustrated desire. Suffering, in the dharmic Buddhist sense of dukkha amounts to a chronic attempt to deny the old maxim “Wherever you go, there you are”.

So, as I was reading Mein Kampf recently, I experienced a kind of “mini-kensho”, a small-scale bo-tree moment – those are just metaphors -- when I realized that Mein Kampf, in its nostalgia for a return to the days of the Wilhelmine empire, is a particularly monstrous and destructive instance of dukkha:  suffering and nostalgia.  But more specifically, I resonated with Hitler’s description of the post-Wilhelmine plight of German workers in the brave new world of the Weimar Republic into which the fall of the Monarchy and the Treaty of Versailles had precipitated them. (I was going to quote extensively from chapter 9, Book II, of Mein Kampf, where Hitler's description of the impoverishment of post-Wilhelmine Germany is nothing short of lyrically eloquent. But there is simply too much text to quote:  Hitler's passion for the subject of Weimar Germany's political and economic ruin will not brook mere synopsis.) Post-1919, most Weimar Germans – the Germans in the vast middle of the social strata Hitler writes of with such passion – must have felt at least as dislocated and disoriented as the people who inhabit both the economic and ideological Rust Belts of 21st-century America. Moreover, both groups felt similarly dislocated and disoriented for essentially the same reasons:  the loss of (at least what they perceived as) “their nation” and “their culture”. (Analogous remarks apply to many nations in Europe, e.g., Holland, France, Hungary, the UK, et al.) The reaction of both groups was to turn to authoritarianism and authoritarians – Hitler and Trump, of course, but also  Geert Wilders, Marine LePen, Viktor Orban and the Jobbik movement in Hungary, etc. In many ways, the most dangerous aspect of these movements is that they amount to a sweeping repudiation of large tracts of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. So, as an unabashed and over-the-top advocate of that Enlightenment, I do not advocate approval or agreement. But I do advocate understanding.

Soup line, Weimar Germany

Furthermore, another aspect of this bo-tree insight – again, that is just a metaphor – is a deeper understanding of our own situation personally.  My wife and I came through the Great Recession virtually unscathed. We were never in any danger of losing our jobs. Our house was never “underwater”. We always had, still have, good health insurance.  Etc., etc., etc. We have the luxury of viewing life, even today with Trump and his three-piece-suited Sturmabteilungen running the show, with equanimity on a personal level. That is a luxury – strictly speaking, a privilege, if you will – that most citizens of Weimar Germany of the 1920s and of the economic and ideological Rust Belts of today do not have. Consequently, when I excoriate Trump and his latter-day gauleiters in Congress and in the public at large – as I have done in the past, and will continue to do in the future without apology – I must always do so in a chastened spirit of “There but for the grace of [God, Great Cthulhu, Just Plain Good Luck … pick one] go I”.  As the late Jane Kenyon says in one of her most arresting poems “It might have been otherwise”. I even have to go one step farther and ask myself how much of my tolerance toward people of other faiths, other ethnicities – even other colors – stems from my wife and I being comparatively well off, materially and psychologically.  I like to think that, even if we were less well off in all those senses, nothing would change in terms of our friendships toward people different from us.  I’m almost certain such is the case. But on the other hand, “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12, KJV). A comfortable bank account and stock portfolio always make tolerance and cosmopolitanism easy.

So ... all the above being the case, what do I believe our attitude should be -- as progressives, as ideological liberals, as rationalists, as civil libertarians -- toward this latest generation of fascists, neo-fascists, "para-fascists", Trump devotees, and even Trump himself? I have come to think of this question in terms of an analogy to a rabid dog.  As anyone knows who has ever seen a rabid dog -- as I have, twice, as a boy and from a safe distance -- you know that your reaction has two aspects:  (1) you feel sorry for the dog ... who wouldn't? ... it's hopelessly sick and will die, the sooner the better, and you yearn to be able to touch it and cure it so that the dog can once more be someone's pet or companion, but (2) touching it is precisely the last thing you would be inclined to do. This is the attitude I have come to adopt toward Trump, the Trump virus -- rabies is a viral disease -- and those who have had contact with both.  The Buddhism by now coded into my spiritual DNA means that I understand, and one of the reasons I understand is because I have read about the experiences of people trapped in both Rust Belts, the economic and the ideological.  Driven by the vision of the crumbling of a whole way of life, they are driven by desperation and poverty to support someone who is antithetical to the very way of life whose passing they profess to mourn. In other words, I (try to) have compassion. But, as with the rabid dog, I maintain my distance for my own health's sake, lest I spread the disease. And besides, who knows? Under similar circumstances, I might react the same way. Nor is this a matter of graciously conferred immunity. Grace plays no part. It's just dumb luck.

The one crack in the wall that admits some sunlight is that, whereas viral rabies is not curable, the ideological rabies of Trumpism may be. I say "may be" because I may well not live long enough to find out for sure. Barack Obama may prove to be the last legitimately elected, categorically sane President of the United States in my lifetime. I was 67 years old when the Trump virus infected the Nation -- actually, the West -- and in 2020, I will be 71. If Trump is re-elected, I will be 75 in 2024. That's pushing it. But this is not about me. It is about us.  Understanding that, perhaps some compassion for myself is not an altogether absurd hope.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Buddhist temple ... J. J. Harrison ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Hitler photo ... Author unknown ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Food line, Berlin, Weimar Germany ... Bundesarchiv ... Public domain
Cargill elevator ... Author unknown ... Public domain
Rust belt sign ... Author unknown ... Public domain
Abandoned Packard plant, Detroit ... Albert Duce ... CC BY-SA 3.0

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