There is a tendency in the modern world to compartmentalize. To keep various aspects of our lives separate. To say, “this is my home life, this is my work life, this is my private life, this is my public life, this is political life, this my spiritual life. They’re separate spheres of activity. Distinct and isolated.”

And I think this is pretty much a bunch of crap.

To back up a bit, it’s fairly easy to trace this history of this attitude to the Enlightenment era thinking of eighteenth century Europe. This was, after all, the cultural context that brought us the separation of church and state.1 But it was also a result of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. This was the cultural context that created a separate space for “work” that was distinct from “home” and thus created not only a “working class” but reinforced certain gender roles. Men go to “work,” women stay “home” and raise children. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, family dynamics and gender roles were much different. If you’ve got an agrarian society where everyone works the field — mother, father, children — and everyone has a hand and a stake in the bare elements of survival — everything from reaping crops to mending and making clothes — you’ve necessarily got more fluidity between roles and responsibilities.

At any rate, all this changes by the turn of the twentieth century. In the modern era, we’ve got clearly defined gender roles. We’ve got clearly defined and separate spheres of activity. We have a work life and co-workers or colleagues. We have “work friends” who are usually different from “family.” At the end of the day, “work” ends and “home” begins. At the end of the week, “home” ends and we go off to “church.” And, for most of us, our “political” lives are limited to the first Tuesday in November.

Or so you’d think.

It seems fairly and obviously clear that these distinctions, these separations we construct in our minds, are just that — mental constructions, useful analytical concepts — and that they have no substantive reality.

I know this to be true for two reasons.

First, if there really was a separate and distinct sphere of activity called “home” that had no bearing on “work,” then work would never be effected by home or vice verse. But we know that’s not true. If I’m stressed out at work because I have too much to do, that stress follows me home. Often, Dana or I have to do work on the weekends in order to make Monday that much easier.

An even better example is illness. Let’s say I get sick. Being sick is something that’s personal, it’s private. It’s not something that’s supposed to have anything to do with other realms of social activity. I get sick. (Note the personal “I.”) But If I get sick, I’m sure as hell not going to work. And if where I work doesn’t give me health benefits, then work is effecting my personal health and my home life. If I’m frustrated by the fact that my work doesn’t give me health benefits, maybe I’ll vote for a politician who promises me health care. But then I go to the polls and find out that politician disagrees with me on some religious issue and I can’t bring myself to vote for her. So the other guy wins and as a result, millions of Americans no longer have health insurance, and my personal, private, religious interests have effected public policy.

So it’s easy to recognize the way that “home” and “work” and “private” and “public” and “political” and “religious” overlap, commingle, effect one another, are all bound up together.

I also know that these compartmentalized distinctions are not real because I’m a Buddhist.

In Buddhist philosophy, we talk a lot about interconnections. One of the most famous metaphors for this is Indra’s Net. The story goes that in one of the Brahma heavens (a place you can “get to” in some meditative states) there’s this jeweled net. The net is infinitely large, stretched out in all directions, and somehow simultaneously folded in on itself. (In my imagination, it looks like an infinitely large Möbius strip.) At the center of each hole in the net is a jewel. And each jewel is not only radiating light but is reflecting all the other jewels. So, in each jewel, you can literally see the entire net, stretched out to infinity.

This vision reflects reality. That is, everything in all of reality, the totality of the cosmos, is reflected in everything else. Beyond that old chaos theory maxim of a butter-fly flapping its wings in Brazil and setting off a tornado in Texas, a butter-fly flaps its wings in Brazil, and a star goes supernova in the Andromeda galaxy.

If that’s true, how could it possibly be true that my political, public life is separate from my private, spiritual life?2

This is why I write about Buddhism and politics, because there is no difference. Everything I do has political implications. And everything I do has Buddhist implications.

This is powerful stuff. This is deeply engaged stuff. And I do not mean merely the “engaged” stuff one can find over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (though they do good work). I mean deeply, profoundly, engaged on a moment by moment basis, knowing that everything I do, everything I feel, everything I think, and all my reactions to those doings and feelings and thinkings will have a profound effect on everything else. On you.

This is the kind of stuff that can change the world.


  1. I think it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of the separation of church and state, and that this entry should in no way be seen as a refutation of the First Amendment’s protection from theocracy and protection of religious freedom. [ back ]
  2. Again, I am not arguing for the blending of public policy and religion. What I am saying is that we need to recognize that we are always political, even when we’re being religious, and that our religious or spiritual views and values effect our politics. So, the real question is, how do we use this knowledge? What is an appropriate use of this power that does not infringe on others’ values and beliefs? [ back ]