What About the Elections? — A (non-partisan?) Socially Engaged Buddhist View by Hozan Alan Senauke (Revised 9.08)
Unless you live in a cave — one without cable or a satellite dish —
you know the 2008 U.S. election is coming up quickly, and, to put it
crudely, the presidency is up for grabs. I find myself thinking and
talking about it constantly. At this moment of history, the election
seems like the most important thing.
Whether you are a Buddhist or not, the question is: what shall we do
in this election season? Our world is in serious trouble. No need to
spell it out further. War and militarism are central expressions of
this trouble. Racism and xenophobia seem implacable. Our house-of-cards
economy is crumbling. Global warming, rooted in our endless appetite
for fossil fuels, is radically changing weather patterns around the
Our world is woven into one fabric. We know that actions taken or
not taken by us here in the U.S. make a difference in the lives of
people everywhere. The forces that give rise to war and violence are
easily seen through a Buddhist lens of the “three poisons,” greed,
hatred, and delusion. But effective antidotes to these poisons are not
so clear. We are unlikely to see great masses of people taking up
meditation …though it might be a good idea. The most important thing is
to find ways that Americans can talk with each other across seemingly
great divides — to talk about things that lead to life and liberation.
In the “Culamalunkya Sutta” the Buddha presents a parable. A man is
wounded by an arrow dipped in poison. His friends carry him to a doctor
for treatment. But the man will not allow the doctor to treat him until
he gets answers to a bunch of questions: What was the caste of the man
who wounded me? What was his name? Was he tall or short, fair or dark?
Where does he live? Did he use a longbow or a crossbow? And so on. He
lies there asking unanswerable questions while the poison does its
work. The Buddha says, “All this would still not be known to that man
and meanwhile he would die.”
The Buddha’s point is: first things first. We know that if a doctor
removes the arrow and treats the wound, that person has a chance to
live. The answers to all of that person’s questions — foolish ones and
good ones — do nothing to prolong his or her life. The Buddha’s “first
thing” is the Four Noble Truths, leading directly to the end of
Extending this parable to apply to our democratic (or
demi-democratic) nation is a nearly impossible undertaking. The arrow
wounding our society carries a slow-acting poison that turns us into
sleepwalkers, lost in dreams of acquisition and pleasure. Drugged like
this, we are unable to see the fears that plague us, the political and
economic forces that play on those fears, and the consequences of our
actions for ourselves and for peoples around the world. Reflexively we
see frightened Americans grasping at tough talk and misleading symbols,
avoiding hard political choices.
First things first. We have to wake up as a society. We live in a
country in which 90% of the people claim to look to religion for
guidance, yet only 45% of eligible voters turn out for an election.
Voter turnout for households with annual incomes under $30,000 a year
is 35%, contrasted with 70% for households with incomes of more than
$60,000. What does this say about the burden of poverty to further
anesthetize people? Maybe it will be different in the charged election.
I hope so. If we really do cleave to spiritual values, we need to vote.
If we are to follow our conscience, we must throw ourselves into a
range of activities right now (if we haven’t already done so), in the
short time that remains before November.
Some people might mistakenly feel there is little real difference
between the candidates. Or they are simply confused about what the
differences are. Republican, Democrat, tweedledum, tweedledee. People
sense that our system gives lip service to democracy, while actually
serving the interests of corporations and elites. I partly agree.
Choosing Democrat A or Rebublican B is not what the Buddha had in mind
when teaching about the end of suffering. But I think there is a real
difference and a choice. Aside from the party polemics, race is the
issue flowing just beneath the surface of this election. Looking at
U.S. history, race and ethnicity have been critical questions at most
every turning: the creation of a constitution, the Civil War, the civil
rights movement, foreign wars waged against people of color. Again we
have an opportunity to bring these questions into the light of day. I
hope we will not let this chance slide by.
In past elections I have sometimes written in my own candidate,
voting according to conscience. At this historical moment, there is too
much at stake. To allow our country and world to lurch headlong through
the fog of war is not okay. To lay waste to the environment endangers
While we still have a vote to cast and choices to make we can follow
the principle of “least harm;” identify and support candidates who will
try to stop the killing without killing more people in the attempt. And
we could be surprised; a new president might actually manage to do some
Back before the 2004 election I asked a circle of Buddhist activist
friends what they thought we should do. Poet and engaged Buddhist
theorist Ken Jones replied from Wales:
As far as I’m concerned the root spirit of compassion makes Buddhism
a “humanism,” and we need to assist the election of actively
compassionate heads of state. The guidelines for doing so are surely
the usual well-tried ones, especially mindfully keeping clear of the
Three Fires! [greed, hatred, and delusion—which Buddha identifies as
the distortions and defilements that impede our awakening]
This matter of choosing compassionate heads of state has dogged
humankind throughout history. In this world of imperfect beings, who
are they? All the great figures of the Axial Age — Shakyamuni Buddha,
Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, and Greek philosophers — had something
to say about how a just and peaceful society would arise and be led. In
13th century Japan, Zen Master Dogen wrote:
Because mountains do not refuse to be mountains, they can be
mountains and reach great heights. Because wise rulers do not weary of
their people they attract many people. “Many people” means a nation. “A
wise ruler” may mean an emperor…This does not mean that they fail to
offer rewards and punishments, but that they never tire of their
people… Although people always desire to form a nation and to find a
wise ruler, few of them fully understand the reason why a wise ruler is
wise. Therefore, they are simply glad to be embraced by the wise ruler.
They don’t realize that they themselves are embracing a wise ruler.
In order to embrace a wise leader and be embraced by him (or her),
we understand that our leaders can only be as wise as we ourselves are
as a people. Along these lines, Santikaro Bhikkhu — Buddhist activist
and disciple of the Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu — writes:
At its best, Buddhism combines a profound realism that looks
open-eyed into the vast maw of suffering with the most noble aspiration
that seeks liberation for all beings. It seems to me that our gift and
duty is to bring this inspired realism to bear on our current social
realities, including the ways politics are played in our Nation. This
involves engaging realistically with the system in place and seeing
beyond it to something more in line with Buddhist values and teachings.
How do we get from here to there mindful of both what is and what can
With this in mind I’d like to suggest a number of relevant
activities to take up as individuals, as chapters, as communities, as a
Former BPF board member and scholar Ken Kraft suggests that, “We can
use this political season as a ‘teaching moment’ for engaged Buddhism.”
First, it has to be a learning moment. We have much to learn about the
workings of our political system, what the candidates really stand for,
how our economy functions. We should also study the role of U.S.
military power in the world, the effects of global warming, and the
painful realities of racial and ethnic divides here in the U.S. and in
other areas of the world. But along with this immersion in the given
circumstances, there is much more to do.
• Identify the values, principles, and issues that are priorities to us
as people of faith and as Buddhists. Set up study groups. This is an
important opportunity to make connections across faith lines. Also
across class lines and ethnic lines, listening to the views of
communities of color and others who have long been disenfranchised.
• We need for new kinds of social analysis. For example, many fears
plague our society and ourselves. Where does this fear come from and
how can we face it? What light does the dharma shine on the external
supports for our fears?
• Our studies can emphasize the history and techniques of nonviolent
social change. How can we bring about change without demonizing or
depersonalizing our opponents? This can also be directly linked to
issues of race, environment, war, military spending, arms sales abroad,
and gun control at home.
• Figure out how candidates stand, in words and actions, on the values,
principles, and issues you have identified. Share the results with
others so we can make informed decisions about our votes.
• Voter registration: there are local organizations you can linkup
with. Find out the neighborhoods and communities where people are
under-registered and go there. This year voter registration efforts are
especially critical in the “swing states,” where numbers may be very
close but the electoral vote is winner-takes-all.
• Teach what you have learned. Organize town meetings and teach-ins on
issues and on the elections themselves. Invite local and national
candidates to share their views. Again this is may be best done as an
interfaith activity. We have many allies in communities of faith,
although often the Buddhists don’t appear on their radar screens. You
may have to reach out to them.
• Show the candidates and your representatives that you are paying
attention to issues of campaign finance and voter fraud. When you have
done your homework, letters and phone call to them will have a real
impact—if not in this election, then in the future. Joanna Macy adds,
“Please include the huge and horrendous issue of voting machine
technology. The…use and abuse of touch-screen voting could easily
control the election.” Sadly this has been a critical fact in the last
two national elections.
• Maintain a strong presence and participation in the antiwar movement. This is not a side issue!
• When you have chosen a candidate — ideal or not — go out and work for
him or her. Often this is person-to-person work. You can learn a lot
3. Practice Patience & Compassion
• How we study and how we act also makes a difference in the world. My
“Think Sangha” friend Jon Watts points out that, “…the Buddha taught
that (sangha) should always gather and recess in harmony — this being
one of the keys for political longevity in the face of hostile outside
forces.” However carefully we develop views, we recognize that no view
provides the last word on a situation. Respectfully, we make room for
various positions in a dialogue. That doesn’t mean we have to pussyfoot
around each other — you’re nice, I’m nice. We need to test views,
premises, and understanding with vigor. Really mix it up with each
other. The challenge is to do this in a spirit of connection,
• Non-duality, or what Dogen Zenji calls Identity-Action extends to our
opponents, whether those be in an everyday discussion, in government,
or in a distant nation. The deep truth is there is no separation of
self and other. All life is one fabric. All people have the same wish
for happiness as you or I; each of us has the same capacity for
wrongdoing. This understanding must inform all that we do, down to our
• Finally, we recognize that even our best intentions may fail. We may
not stop the war. We may not feed or house all those in need. We may
not cross the racial divide. We may not end our own suffering. The key
word is “yet.” Take the long view, and be persistent in your practice
and in your work for peace. Even as we think we fail, other actions are
taking place. But to accept this means practicing patience and
equanimity. Surely the universe is realigning itself with what is
wholesome. It just seems to move more slowly than we wish.
This is really just an outline. Please tailor it to your own
resources and inclinations. You will have noticed that in this piece I
haven’t taken any outright political stands—unless it is political to
stand for life. I have not spoken for or against candidates or
administrations. In part this is to be careful about Clear View and
BPF’s tax-exempt status, which limits advocacy for specific candidates
and legislation. In this age of disappearing legal rights, care is
necessary. I also hesitate to lay out personal political views here. On
the one hand I’ve got lots of opinions; on the other hand, like most of
us, I have a lot more studying to do. People need to arrive at their
own individual and collective positions. From this group wisdom we can
find a political ground of compassion, and create a circle of feedback
and dialogue with our leaders and with those who wish to be leaders.
Eventually some of us will lead. Whether our candidates win or lose, we
can have confidence in our dharma view. And we will have learned a lot.
This piece was originally drafted for the 2004 presidential
election, and lately revised. Comments and suggestions were gratefully
received from Ken Kraft, Santikaro Bhikkhu, Maia Duerr, Ken Jones,
Joanna Macy, Diana Lion, Des McConaghy, Jon Watts, Laurie Senauke, and