It could be a parlour game. You have all the day’s news in front of you and two minutes forty five seconds to make a Buddhist comment on it. You can deviate and hesitate, but not repeat yourself. You have to be relevant and you can’t be sectarian or party political. Several million people will hear your talk, so it’s a good idea to avoid being platitudinous.
Since 2006 I’ve been the Buddhist contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – a venerable institution which has some people spluttering into their muesli and others taking the opportunity to head to the loo. A surprising number of people actually like it.
At a steady ten talks a year (plus others I do in a similar format for BBC Radio Wales), I’ve learned how to play this game. To connect the news with the Buddha’s teachings you have to draw out a general ethical or doctrinal reflection from the specific story. If the transition is too abrupt or the faith comment seems to leave behind the problem in the news, the result is platitude. But if the ‘thought’ is sufficiently resonant, it can add something to the discussion, even if it doesn’t offer a solution. When the Queen died I spoke about impermanence; when war broke out in the Ukraine I recounted a discussion with fellow Buddhists about what our non-violent ideals meant in the face of a brutal attack.
This raises a larger question: What does Buddhism have to say to modern society? One view is that it teaches leaving the world behind, not changing it. I don’t think that was true for the Buddha in his society and I don’t think it’s true now. Another is that the forces shaping the world institutionalise craving, aversion and ignorance and a Buddhist position should oppose them. I sympathise, but in practice, I observe that, while this approach will give you a left-wing perspective, it’s much less clear that it brings a distinctively Buddhist one?
For a long time the limit on expressing my personal opinions felt like a constraint, but over time they have helped me clarify for me what I think Buddhism really has to offer. In particular, I’ve found that some themes, which are central to the Dharma, also resonate strongly with the issues facing our society.
One is the central place that Buddhism affords to the mind. The rising incidence of stress and mental health problems make understanding and ‘managing’ our minds a pressing issue for many people. And in the world of the ‘attention economy’ Buddhist practices, perhaps mediated by the Mindfulness Movement, are directly relevant.
The same is true, in a consumerist society furiously dedicated to consumption and distraction, of everything Buddhism has to say about non-material sources of satisfaction. Similarly, Buddhist teachings on universal loving kindness, or metta, are relevant to compassionate activity wherever it happens, and to issues of war and peace. They are also relevant to chauvinism and racism, even when they occur in Buddhist countries. Finally, the Buddhist teachings on karma or conditionality imply the need to take a long-term, holistic perspective on the world; that’s the opposite of the short-term, instrumental approaches that have brought so many problems, and it’s the key to the Buddhist response to climate change.
This isn’t a comprehensive list – I talk about many other things as well. It also isn’t a systematic Buddhist political philosophy, and I suspect that such a thing isn’t even possible. My criteria are that what I say should align with core Buddhist teachings and connect with wider needs; I also need to feel a connection with it that comes from my own experience and Buddhist practice.
Beyond the parlour game and the broadcasting, I suspect that what I’ve learned from doing Thought for the Day is relevant for other people of faith. In a fractious, polarised political culture where people are losing the capacity to listen, the world doesn’t need us to take sides. It needs us to listen, and offer an alternative.