Buddhism and Politics: A Dialogue

Originally posted by Upaya News


There is no universal agreement among Buddhists about the right solutions to political issues or even how to prioritize them


by Maia Duerr

Several years ago on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles, I posed a question to readers: How relevant is your Buddhist background when you consider how you are voting, or to take a step further back, how you relate to the whole electoral/political process in general?

(Here is the original post, which also included a 2004 Election Guide to Candidates and Issues published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.)

A rich conversation ensued from that question. Here are some excerpts:


Shodo Spring (Soto Zen priest and author of Take Up Your Life)

In response to your questions, I would say that my Buddhist orientation determines everything about my politics. How could freeing all beings NOT be relevant to how we vote and act in the realm of politics?


Seth Segall (Zen practitioner and blogger)

If you are a Buddhist there is no non-Buddhist part of your life. There is a Buddhist way that you try to engage in relationships, a Buddhist way that you look at the way you spend your time, a Buddhist way you look at how you spend your income, a Buddhist way you look at how you earn your livelihood, and a Buddhist way you to decide how to cast your vote and how to express yourself politically.

There is no universal agreement among Buddhists about the right solutions to political issues or even how to prioritize them. There can be agreement, however, about trying to not make one’s political actions the product of greed, aversion, or delusion, and about acting mindfully and employing right speech, etc.

There also should be some degree of non-attachment and non-self in the way we conduct ourselves as well. We care deeply about outcomes and work hard for what we belieive, but the outcomes are not about ourselves, and we understand that the universe is not going to comply with all our wishes. We are going to need a good deal of equanimity and a deeper perspective on how causes and conditions evolve over time to deal with what, at least for now, looks like a debacle at the ballot box next month!

I drew some consolation from a Gail Collins op-ed piece earlier this year about how many years it took (and how many defeats there were along the way!) before women’s sufferage became a reality in the United States.

Working for issues we care about in a climate that isn’t entirely favorable to them takes persistence and courage, and it may take generations to reach one’s goals, but goals can be obtainable nevertheless. Slavery did end, women can vote, health care can be a right, and in the coming year gays and lesbians may be able to serve openly in the military. Change comes slowly with many reversals and defeats along the way, but it does happen. Keep the faith!


Maia’s response:

Thank you, Seth. The interesting thing, as I read your comment, is that I’m realizing that we can achieve important goals on one level — yes, slavery did end, women can vote — and yet on a deeper level the root suffering still remains. Racism is still firmly in place. Sexism has not disappeared. Perhaps this is one of the limitations of working through the electoral/legislative process.


Nathan G. Thompson (Zen practitioner, yoga student, blogger)

I think people put too much energy into electoral politics, and not enough into grassroots action, community building, and cross-issue collaborating. Especially at the federal level, the differences in actual decisions (as opposed to rhetoric) are becoming less and less, regardless of party affiliation. Take a good hard look at the Clinton and Obama Administrations, and the periods when each had majorities in one or both sections of Congress. How much concrete differences came out of those periods (not talk, but actual action that changed lives for the better). Is it enough to justify the amount of energy we spend on getting these people in office?

Putting oodles of time into trying to get, or keep, one of these two parties in power is kind of backwards if you ask me. Do I vote? Sure. Do I research candidates? Sure. I have even gone and lobbied members of both the state and federal legislatures on particular issues. But I view all of that as part of a much bigger process, and consider elected power as only one form of collective power in society.

In my view, it’s really difficult to develop visions and start actually implementing them in even symbolic ways in our lives when every two or four years, a majority of the people involved disappear to door-knock and do fundrasing for some candidate. What would excite me would be to see a Buddhist effort around particular issues, sustained for decades in the way some churches have committed to working with immigrants for example. Where people try and come together across party lines to build something, which would include lobbying elected people and speaking about people running for office, but which would be much larger than that.


Maia’s response

Nathan, I’m coming to a place where I agree with you on the need to put our energy into other forms of power and decision-making processes. The whole electoral process feels bankrupt in many ways, and we mistakenly think if we find ‘just the right people’ to elect and be in power, things will be different. And then we nail them to the cross, like what’s happening to President Obama right now, from both the Right and the Left. The system itself is a huge mess.

I’ve also thought it might be a worthy effort to focus attention on ways to reform that system or build a new one. We could develop a movement that could focus on one or two changes that really could make a dramatic difference. For example, how might things be different if we had a proportional representation or cumulative voting system. Lani Guinier tried to offer that vision and she was ostracized for it, but it’s worth looking at again. How might things be different if true campaign finance reform was implemented?

We get tied up in knots working on these campaigns and for candidates who will inevitably fall short of our hopes and dreams… we exhaust ourselves in the process and get cynical. Maybe the problem is we’re playing in the wrong court.

I also really like your vision of a Buddhist effort that would focus on the issues themselves and how to grow change from the grassroots level… slow work, but work that needs to be rooted deep and be sustained for the long haul. Both your comment and Seth’s reminds me of something Martin Luther King, Jr. said so beautifully:

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


And finally – I want to add one more voice to this dialogue though this response was not part of my original blog post. Just yesterday, Karen MaezenMiller, a Zen priest at Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles and writer (see her wonderful blog, Cheerio Road), shared this with me:

We vote. We vote according to our own perspective and unattached to outcome. We allow our minds to be open; we allow others to have their own point of view. We care, and we care about others. If we’re asked and it is feasible, we walk the precincts, man the phones. I think that we do this as citizens, and not flag bearers, because our practice makes us aware of what needs to be done. Sometimes, we do as the Buddha did when he argued unsuccessfully against a battle between two warring camps: we sit on the sidelines and cry.


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