Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

An Inward Grace

Posted in: Politics
Stairway to EU Heaven

‘British Buddhists can be either Remainers or Leavers without any intrinsic conflict with their Buddhist principles.’ So I wrote in Part One of this series. But my words put me at odds with one of the best-known Buddhist writers and teachers in the West. In his article ‘A Buddhist Brexit’, published in the magazine Tricycle, Stephen Batchelor claimed that voting Remain was an expression of Buddhist values, and that voting Leave would have been, for him, a betrayal of ‘what it means to be fully human’. As a Leaver myself, I felt a duty to take issue with Stephen on this point. While respectfully noting his achievements in other domains, I judged his article as disturbingly harsh in its characterisation of those who voted Leave, and starry-eyed in its conception of the EU. Here, in Part Two, I offer a fuller analysis of what I think is wrong with his viewpoint.

The Mentalising Tendency

The striking peculiarity – and to my mind, the grievous error – of Stephen Batchelor’s article was that it discussed Brexit in terms of mental states. The article is permeated with the assumption that good people – those with pure minds – must have voted Remain, and that only those with impure minds could possibly have voted Leave. To coin an awkward phrase, the article mentalised Brexit. Perhaps this overriding interest in the mind and mental states was only to be expected on the part of a prominent Buddhist writing for a Buddhist readership. Nevertheless, I believe it needs to be examined critically because it may reveal a significant weakness in how we Western Buddhists think and talk about politics.

Conspicuous by its absence in ‘A Buddhist Brexit’ is any informed and critical examination of the EU, or of the pros and cons of British membership. The worthiness of the former and the desirability of the latter are just assumed as self-evident truths needing no exposition or analysis. The article contains no evaluation of the impact of the EU on the security and prosperity of the peoples of Europe, and no assessment of whether its institutions meet the standards of legitimacy and accountability required of a modern democracy. Nor does it offer any critical scrutiny of the historical processes by which the EU came to exist, or to exercise its substantial powers. Apparently, there is no need for that sort of thing: it’s all just a matter of having the right states of mind. For Stephen Batchelor, it seems, voting Remain was nothing more than the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

Stephen’s mentalising discourse has two strands, which are interwoven throughout the text. One strand is his description of his own feelings about the outcome of the referendum. He mentions ‘numb, sullen anger’, ‘feelings of grievance and injustice’, ‘dismay, disbelief and horror’ and ‘a sinking nausea’. When I first read the piece, I thought it might be intended in a confessional way, but repeated readings convince me that it is less like confession than striptease. By baring his anguish and outrage, the author hopes to excite corresponding feelings in his readers. His pain serves to lend authority to his condemnation of Leave voters, and to his subsequent plea for a form of politicised Buddhism (this is hinted at rather than said) that will perhaps help to reverse or mitigate the tragedy of Brexit.

The other strand consists of assertions about the mental states of the voters on either side of the referendum debate – with a strong emphasis on the unwholesome states that motivated Leave voters. Thus, while Remainers are associated with ‘welcoming others’, ‘altruism’, and ‘tolerance’, Leavers are accused of ‘self-interest’, ‘intolerance’, ‘suspicion’ and ‘antagonism’. Buddhists reading this are likely to detect, however faintly, an echo of the ‘three poisons’ of greed, delusion and hatred – the forces that keep the Wheel of Birth and Death revolving, and bind living beings to suffering. For those who know the symbol, there is an implication that Remain voters are in the light semicircle of the Wheel – the one that leads upwards to towards rebirth in a happier world – while Leave voters are in the dark downward-leading semicircle.

To be scrupulously fair, the article is not wholly given over to mentalising. It has a middle-section that summarises Stephen’s beloved personal philosophy of ‘secular Buddhism’, and advocates it as a framework within which British Buddhists might ‘respond’ to Brexit. While the ‘disaster’ of the referendum’s outcome is to be judged in terms of the supposed mental states of the disputants, the response urged by Stephen is one of activity. There are many questions I would like to pose about this. But we must jump over the entanglement. Whatever one makes of this section of the article, it adds nothing to the question of the rights and wrongs of the EU or of Brexit.

The article also momentarily departs from the mentalising approach in the final paragraph, where it refers to the anticipated consequences of the Leave vote – namely a loss of opportunities for young people, and a worsening of the situation for immigrants and refugees. This foray into the objective realm, while welcome in principle, could hardly be worse informed as to particulars. Of all the issues on which a defender of the EU might choose to take a stand, that of youth opportunities is one of the least defensible.1 Likewise, any notion that the UK either was or is less sympathetic to immigrants and refugees than the rest of the EU is contradicted by all the evidence.2 But these are matters I mean to treat more fully in the third part of this series .

All in all, what should we make of this mentalisation of a political controversy? On the one hand, a focus on mental states, and a propensity to judge those states as either skilful or unskilful, seems natural and proper for a Buddhist writer such as Stephen Batchelor. After all, the most famous canonical text of Buddhism begins by declaring the mind does not neutrally reveal, but in some measure actually creates the world of our experience. The same text goes on to point out that impure mental states lead to suffering while pure states lead to happiness.3 And indeed, much of Buddhist teaching (the Abhidharma, for example) is the elaboration of what might be called a normative taxonomy of the mind – that is, lists of mental states, classified as either wholesome and unwholesome.

Still, Buddhist as I am, I for one feel unhappy about the use to which this Buddhist emphasis on the mind has been put in ‘A Buddhist Brexit’. Naturally, I agree that in terms of individual spiritual development, the practice of mindfulness of one’s own mental states is crucial. I also accept that such practice is likely to make one a more perceptive observer of what makes other people tick. At the same time, it ought to be obvious that to judge any complex social question (such as the pros and cons of the UK’s membership of the EU) requires something more than a blend of acute introspection with speculation about what is going on in other people’s heads.

At the risk of labouring the point, I must add that the difficulties in generalising about the mental states of some seventeen million Leave voters, and then passing a moral judgement on them, are orders of magnitude greater than, for example, generalising about one’s personal acquaintances. You might expect such difficulties to be prohibitive in the case of a writer who, by his own account, has never actually met a single one of those voters (as Stephen candidly admits was still the case even at the time he wrote his article, some six months after the referendum). Undeterred by such difficulties, Stephen shows remarkable confidence in his assertions about voters’ motivations in the 2016 referendum.

Unfortunately, my experience suggests that Stephen Batchelor is not the only Buddhist to make this mistake. In nearly all the conversations I have had with Buddhist Remainer friends, I have encountered an essentially similar attitude to the EU and Brexit. The main yardstick they use to judge the pros and cons of Brexit is the idea that the EU represents a wholesome state of mind – namely, a spirit of mutual friendliness and cooperation. Consequently, remaining part of the EU seems to them the natural choice for Buddhists. Conversely, to leave it would be an unfriendly, uncooperative act, and thus a reversal of ‘progress’.

If one knows little or nothing about the EU, it might seem hard to fault this way of looking at it. Indeed, as I acknowledged in Part One of this series, it is pretty much where I started from myself. I understand those who cannot spare the time to go beyond that starting point – that is, to inform themselves about the EU and the rights or wrongs of Britain’s membership. But it seems to me that anyone in that position ought to adopt a calm neutrality and – unlike Stephen Batchelor – refrain from fulminating against the partisans on whichever side of the debate.

Setting aside for a moment the question of Brexit, I think there is a sobering general lesson we Western Buddhists ought to draw from all this. If we want to take sides on political and economic controversies, we had better guard against any mentalising tendency; that is, a tendency (deriving from our studied and sensitive awareness of the quality of mental states) either to treat our feelings as significant for social questions – as ‘proof’ of our authenticity and moral seriousness – or to judge others on the basis of what we think we know about the inner workings of their minds.

I fear I see such a tendency not only in relation to Brexit but also to other controversial issues of the present moment. For example, I have met western Buddhists who seem very assured of the widespread prevalence of unconscious racial bias in the minds of others. Of course, it is not Buddhists who are loudly advocating for such claims at present. But I have noticed that some of us are too uncritically susceptible to them.

The ‘Progressive’ Matrix

If Stephen had never met even a single Leave voter by the spring of 2017, how could he be so confident in spotting the unskilful thoughts and emotions that drove their vote? Whatever the answer might be, his opinion would have held few surprises for British readers of Tricycle. They would have heard or read it all before – though probably not in that particular magazine. Such opinions are not rooted in Buddhism, although they have a special appeal for western Buddhists. Where exactly did they come from?

Stephen’s view of Brexit – including his tendency to mentalise the issue – emerges from the matrix of political discourse on the ‘progressive’ Left in the UK , and that discourse was well established long before the referendum of June 2016.4 In some ways, Stephen’s article does no more than echo the tropes employed by the progressive sections of the media, which strove to stigmatise support for Brexit by associating it with ignorant, backward-looking and xenophobic attitudes of mind.

True, the most virulent attacks of this type appeared only after the Referendum. In the run-up to 23rd June 2016, it was permissible to acknowledge some faults in the EU. That limited tolerance was granted partly because the Left could hardly forget that it had been sceptical of the European Community (as a ‘capitalist club’) in the pre-Maastricht era, and that there were still individuals in its midst who stuck tenaciously to that view. The tolerance was also granted partly in the confident anticipation that Remain would win the day: dissenters could be humoured up to a point because they were expected to lose the referendum. In this regard, ironically, much of the Left was at one with Conservative PM David Cameron and the CBI. But when that expectation was overturned by the vote, the scope for tolerance narrowed dramatically, leaving rage and contempt for the evil and folly of Brexiteers. It is precisely this bitter post-referendum mood that we can discern, draped in a loose-fitting Buddhist gown, in Stephen Batchelor’s Tricycle article.

Recalling a melancholy moment at Kings Cross Station on 24th June, Stephen laments, ‘I am a foreigner here. I do not see the world in the way that many of these people must see it…Standing on the platform, I found it difficult to identify with a country that had just democratically chosen to take such a path.’ In an article published on the very same day, Gary Younge of the Guardian ruminated on how many Britons had woken up to feel that ‘they were suddenly living in a different country.’ Younge also declared that British politics had been ‘poisoned’ by the vote, and that the Leave campaign had unleashed a range of ‘demons’, and had ‘waded’ to victory ‘through a toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection’.5 In his article, six months later, Stephen struck a similar note with his claim that Britain had opted ‘for rejecting others rather than welcoming them…for intolerance rather than tolerance…for us rather than them’.

The authors of the Guardian and Tricycle articles also share a dilemma that they are unwilling to admit, but unable to conceal. Each sees himself on the side of human dignity, freedom and rights – a position that requires a fundamental optimism about the goodwill and intelligence of the mass of ordinary people. The snag is that it is not easy to reconcile such optimism with the view that large numbers of British voters in the referendum acted out of ignorance and xenophobia. Accordingly, the voters had to be blamed yet simultaneously excused: blamed because they had made a bad choice from bad motives, but excused because they must have been the victims of deceit. But this is a very unsatisfactory solution: to exonerate the voters from malice is to condemn them for ignorance or gullibility – and vice versa. It is like tossing a coin with tails on both sides. The only way out of this impasse was to shift the blame onto the Leave campaign by exaggerating its excesses and errors – which, unsurprisingly, did indeed exist. Only by depicting the Brexit ringleaders as utterly Mephistophelean in their evil intent and trickery could seventeen million British voters be granted some measure of absolution for their sin.

Accordingly, we find Gary Younge of the Guardian exclaiming that, during the campaign, ‘the very worst impulses were given free rein and voice’; comparing leave campaigners to a dog chasing a car ‘only to amaze itself by catching it’; and accusing the campaign of having ‘poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation’. Similarly, Stephen claimed that The Leave campaign ‘had been driven to no small extent by selfishness, fear and hatred, which led to a misrepresentation of facts if not downright lying, and a climate of bellicose rhetoric that contributed to the murder of a Member of Parliament.’

This trope of blaming the Leave campaign for the murder of MP Jo Cox was also borrowed from the press – perhaps directly from another Gary Younge piece in the Guardian, which appeared just six days after the first:

Xenophobia – no longer closeted, parsed or packaged, but naked, bold and brazen – was given free rein. A week before the referendum, an MP was murdered in the street. When the man accused of killing her was asked his name in court, he said: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”6

In this way, a tragic but clearly exceptional case was eagerly seized as a ‘gotcha’ moment – a dramatic ‘exhibit A’ that could clinch the case for the prosecution of Leavers. Yet any internet search for the information about Thomas Mair (the murderer) reveals he was a psychologically troubled and socially isolated man who had no links to any of the campaigns that supported leaving the EU or indeed to any British political group. To stigmatise all those who campaigned or simply spoke out for Leave by associating them with Thomas Mair is comparable to stigmatising Muslims by associating them with the atrocities committed by ISIS – something that the Guardian, and most likely Stephen Batchelor too, would properly condemn.

From Europe to Eurāvatī

One of the oddest things about ‘A Buddhist Brexit’ – and one that is easily missed on a single reading – is that it has nothing explicit to say about the European Union. Although the whole point of the article is to lament Britain’s departure from the Union, it tells us next to nothing about why that departure is so lamentable. Whatever beauty the EU has for the author, we see it only as an indistinct reflection in his grief at losing it. And what was lost is spirit – ‘altruism’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘welcoming’ – rather than substance. The EU is like a tantalising spectre that Stephen can only glimpse out of the corner of his eye. Of course, this lack of substance is simply the flip side of the lack of facts and arguments that I have already noted. When you try to look at a spectre squarely, it disappears, or changes into some prosaic solid object like a wardrobe.

In this respect, Buddhist Remainers like Stephen are not entirely typical of Remainers as a whole. They are part of a particular sub-set. A large exit poll taken on the day of the EU referendum revealed that the vast majority (roughly three quarters) of Remain voters were motivated primarily by economic considerations. If the ideals of progressive internationalism featured in their motivation, they were at best secondary. Essentially, such voters feared that the loss of unhindered access to the huge market of the EU would damage the economy of the UK.7 For such Remainers, the EU was just a wardrobe, not a bewitching phantom.

Those economic fears, though not unfounded, were probably exaggerated. Even pro-EU economists like Paul Krugman and Kenneth Arrow (both Nobel Prize winners) have expressed the view that while leaving will set back the British economy, it will not be a disaster. Even so, nobody could blame those Britons who, out of concern for their jobs and their families, chose the cautious option and voted Remain, despite their lack of enthusiasm for the EU.

However, a small but not minuscule minority of Remainers – a cohort of about nine percent ­– claimed that they voted Remain because they felt ‘a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions.’8 The historian Robert Tombs, an acute and well-informed commentator on Brexit, labels this nine-percent cohort as ‘ideological Remainers’. They have, says Tombs, ‘an emotional commitment to the European project’.9 If we could put this cohort under a microscope, I have little doubt that we would discern Stephen Batchelor, together with many British Buddhists, peering up at us reproachfully through the lens.

But we should look more closely at that notion of the ‘shared history, culture and traditions’ of the EU. For any historically literate reader, this ought to sound bizarre. At the date of the referendum, the European Union had existed for less than twenty-three years (the Maastricht Treaty came into force on 1st November 1993). Its predecessor (the European Community) began in 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed. Arguably though, the seed of the project was sown with the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which created the European Coal and Steel Community. That makes the project we now call the EU at most seventy years old. Which is old enough to be overdue for retirement, but surely not old enough to have much in the way of ‘shared culture, history and traditions.’ It seems that in the minds of ideological Remainers, the EU has become identical with Europe. But subtract the full weight of the EU from the ‘shared history, culture and traditions’ of Europe, and the needle would hardly flicker on the scales.

It is a regrettable fact that all of us – Leavers as much as Remainers, Buddhists as much as anyone else – have fallen into the habit of saying ‘Europe’ when we mean ‘the EU’, as if the two things were one and the same. For most of us, this may be no more than a lazy shorthand, but when ideological Remainers use the terms as interchangeable, they really mean it. When they think of ‘the EU’, they are in fact thinking of Europe in general. And not only in general, but also in highly idealised terms. Spirit counts for more than substance. Perhaps, in their mind’s eye, they picture the glories of European architecture – the Parthenon or Notre Dame. But in sober truth, they should be thinking of The Berlaymont (the home of the European Commission in Brussels) – a building that ‘never worked’, and one where ‘people who had spent their entire careers in it still had trouble finding their way around.’10

If the EU is not Europe, what exactly is it? Essentially, the EU is the current phase of an ambitious long-term experiment, which was born out of the chaos inflicted on Europe by the two most devastating wars the world has ever seen. As an experiment it is a strange hybrid: partly a regional trading bloc comparable to others around the world, but partly a unique project aimed at creating a union of diverse and independent nation-states. The treaties that underpin this project are extraordinary in that they create, in effect, a supranational government embodied in a set of institutions: the Commission, the Court of Justice, the Parliament, and so on. Over the history of the experiment, member states have handed over more and more of their powers to these institutions.

So how has it all turned out? Has the experiment been a success? Has it produced benefits for all the participants that justify the costs? If there are benefits, could they have been produced by other means? Should the UK – or any of the other participants – persist with the experiment? These are questions I will turn to in the third part of this series. At this point, I will only say that satisfactory answers cannot be based on the states of mind – such as the intentions, real or supposed – that originally inspired or now sustain the experiment. Nor can the answers depend on how passionately its advocates feel about it. Rather, we must try to judge in objective terms how the EU has actually affected the security and prosperity of Europe; whether its supranational institutions are (or can be made) adequately democratic; and so on. In short, we ought to consider all the things that are conspicuous by their absence in Stephen Batchelor’s Tricycle article.

Instead of doing this, Stephen implicitly treats the EU as the communal embodiment of a spiritual ideal – something like the city of Jerusalem in the Psalms. Or at least, as a route leading from our present imperfect condition towards that ideal – a stairway to heaven. Stephen’s position therefore can fairly be called a Buddhist variation on the type of the ‘ideological Remainer’.

Of course, Buddhism does not have anything that corresponds exactly to the biblical Jerusalem. I suppose our nearest equivalent is the strand of the canonical literature that speaks of ‘Pure Lands’ – heavenly realms whose inhabitants experience only wholesome states of mind, and hence are just a step away from the attainment of perfect Enlightenment. The most famous of the Pure Lands is Sukhāvatī, in which many East Asian Buddhists hope to be reborn. For some of us Western Buddhists, the EU has ceased to be an exotic experiment of uncertain outcome. At some point, it morphed into something else – first into an idealised version of Europe, and then into the Pure Land of Eurāvatī.

But how did this happen? When and why did the transformation begin? How did the feelings associated with it reach the intensity displayed in Stephen Batchelor’s ‘A Buddhist Brexit’?  These are interesting and important questions, to which I mean to return eventually in what will be the fourth and final part of this series.


  1. See data at Unemployment – Youth unemployment rate – OECD Data The latest figures available as I write show that unemployment of people aged 15-24 and available for work in the UK stands at around the OECD average of about 13% (aggregating the figures for men and women). Overall, the figures for the EU and the Eurozone both stand at around 17%.  In France (where Stephen Batchelor resides) the equivalent figure is 19%, in Italy 31%. Greece and Spain are both in the worst three in the table (along with Costa Rica) at around 34% and 38% respectively.
  2. See for example: Frontiers | Prejudice Against Immigrants Symptomizes a Larger Syndrome, Is Strongly Diminished by Socioeconomic Development, and the UK Is Not an Outlier: Insights From the WVS, EVS, and EQLS Surveys | Sociology (frontiersin.org)
  3. Dhammapada, verses 1-2
  4. See Part One of this series for my definition of ‘progressive Left’
  5. Gary Younge: After this vote the UK is diminished, our politics poisoned, the Guardian, 24th June 2016.
  6. Gary Younge: Brexit: a disaster decades in the making, the Guardian, 30th June 2016.
  7. How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why – Lord Ashcroft Polls This figure of three quarters is an amalgam of 43% who stated as their first reason: ‘the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices’ plus 31% who put first the idea that remaining would give the UK ‘the best of both worlds’ – that is, access to the single market while retaining our own currency plus some control of our borders (as compared to those member states within the Schengen Area).
  8. How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why – Lord Ashcroft Polls
  9. Robert Tombs, Robert: This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, Allen Lane, UK, 2021, p.72
  10. George Ross: Jacques Delors and European Integration, Polity Press; Cambridge, UK, 1995, p.52

Subhamati has been a member of Triratna Buddhist Order for thirty-one years. He has led a varied career as a university administrator, a language teacher, and a teacher of meditation and Buddhism. He has worked as an editor or co-author (with Dharmachari Subhuti) on several books, including Buddhism and Friendship and Mind in Harmony: the psychology of Buddhist ethics.

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