Being a Zen student in the Korean Chogye tradition has taught me that all of my political thoughts, feelings, opinions and impulses arise by themselves like flowers in the springtime. They arise because of my family background, life experiences, education, and the influences of friends, neighbors, co-workers, politicians and the news media. They have no self-nature, they are transitory; next year or next decade I expect to have different beliefs. Therefore, I am very careful about not becoming overly attached to my beliefs or to the results of an election or legislative session.
When I push facts and data through my personal screens and sieves, I come to mostly conservative conclusions. I know this is quite different from many other sangha members, who come to liberal conclusions. However, common to both views is the desire to serve beings, and to serve beings through involvement in the shaping of public policy.
What disturbs me about the current political environment is that there is so little courtesy, respect and dialogue between political activists from opposite ends of the spectrum. It is so very toxic—definitely not Buddhist. There are opportunities for forming working coalitions focused on serving beings, but these opportunities are being lost at local, state, national and world levels.
The root cause of this illness is attachment to one’s own opinion, to getting ahead, and to the political game. I think a true political bodhisattva, if there is such a creature, should be able to float with equal ease through a cocktail party jammed full with either conservatives or liberals, should listen carefully to everyone, should only speak words of quality, and should build up rather than tear down.
In the short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula LeGuin describes a glittering city in which life seems perfect. Eventually the reader learns the price for this utopian existence: every resident, upon reaching a certain age, is led to a dungeon underneath the city and shown a child who is imprisoned alone, naked, filthy and miserable—a tortured existence that is in all ways opposite to that of the privileged citizens of Omelas. Most citizens accept the suffering of this lone victim as necessary for the good of the many; but a few “walk away,” leaving Omelas forever.
I remembered this story while lying in bed one night, thinking about my country’s warmongering. I had been writing letters to the editor, to senators and to congressional representatives; attending local “teach-ins” on Iraq; and maintaining the mailing list of a local peace group. I had sent an e-mail to the President and signed petitions. I had begun volunteering with a local mediation group. I was trying to focus on what I could do rather than on what I couldn’t. All my efforts, however, seemed futile. I wanted to “walk away.”
That impulse brought to mind LeGuin’s story, which made me realize that my comfort has always been purchased with others’ pain, extending at least as far back as the voyages of Columbus. Now I began to wonder what portion of my tax dollars went to military spending, so that I could calculate how many deaths I actually pay for each year. Thinking further, I realized that this revealed only part of the picture. What about the exploitation of workers from Mexico to Malaysia, that allows me to purchase cheap consumer goods? What about the suicides and domestic violence engendered in depressed towns that have lost their industrial base, and the pollution-caused cancers in towns that haven’t? What about the carnage on our highways, in which I participate simply by owning an automobile? What about the subsidies paid to the farmers who grew the tobacco that killed my father? I may walk to work, participate in community-supported agriculture, patronize local businesses, vote, and protest harmful government policies, but I cannot escape this web of economic interrelatedness. As a co-worker pointed out to me, we can’t know how much suffering we cause.
These thoughts brought me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” To realize no separation between oneself and not only the refugee girl raped by a pirate, but also the pirate himself—that is the challenge of the dharma. To be in opposition to my government’s leaders is also, intimately and inextricably, to be in opposition to myself. To walk away from Omelas is impossible.
Can I employ compassion and insight to acknowledge those responsible for creating war as not separate from myself, and find ways to act accordingly? This is the question I carry with me as I seek to act politically and to oppose war.
One can only visualize so many deities before beginning to wonder, What benefit is this actually having? Certainly many Buddhist practices enable the practitioner to relate to things more directly. And the practitioner can be inspired with dharmic thoughts for a period of hours or days after. But does it actually benefit anyone in a tangible way?
The mistake is to assume that practicing meditation or sadhanas automatically leads to helping others—you still need to actually do something.
I feel an obligation to be politically involved. Long before the fruits of action are reaped, leaders establish the nation’s vision and direction. In picketing, canvassing, writing letters or speaking with others, one must always be willing to listen and learn as much as one is intending to teach. Holding a sign on a frosty winter morning, the cold can be a segue into a conversation with an opponent. The political practitioner can then identify the wisdom of one’s opponents, and perhaps the blind spots of his or her own view. I believe it is on this ground of exploration that the meaningful progress is made.
I feel that I have a responsibility to share the Buddhist teachings on a political level. Meditation and sadhana practice are not enough. Only by letting go of spiritual maintenance and fixed viewpoints can one truly be available to help shape events.
New York, NY
I was a political organizer—an anarchist organizer, to be exact—long before I began to practice Buddhism. I’ve organized for global justice, against the WTO, IMF and the World Bank. I’ve worked in my community on an urban garden and on issues of domestic violence and rape.
For years I was tempted to look into Buddhism. I longed for something that would help me grow inside, provide guidance and calm my demanding, frantic way of looking at the world. Finally, a few years ago, I read a book for beginners about Buddhism. I only got to page ten, where I was asked to accept the fact that life is suffering. Looking around at my loving community and my good health, comparing it to the poverty I know exists in the world, it felt very silly and even annoying to call myself a suffererer. No way!—I was an advantaged person. I was annoyed with what I perceived as Buddhism’s passive acceptance. For example, women getting raped and beaten up just because they are women, how could I accept that this was okay? I tossed the materials aside, irritated at Buddhism for its unrealistic and naive views.
When a meditation center opened in my neighborhood, I went, again looking for peace. During meditation I was given permission to let go of all the anger and feel what was underneath—sadness, fragility, fear. I had to hold back tears of relief. As weeks passed, I continued to practice and realized new depths of compassion, for myself and for those I wanted to help.
Now, I see anarchism and Buddhism and inseparable parts of me; they go hand in hand. Anarchism says, “Trust your heart, yourself and your community to know what’s right. The answers do not lie with those who have illegitimate power over you.” Buddhism says, “Keep opening your eyes, your compassion, your understanding. Keep growing.” I believe now that there is no politics without the inner work of continuously opening the mind and heart.
A fundamental Buddhist principle is not to kill anything. Therefore, the politics of war requires our attention both on and off the cushion.
On the cushion, tonglen [the practice of sending and taking] seems to be the most appropriate action.
In terms of worldly action, my activity is based on the theory that politicians respond to public pressure. I get involved in the simplest way, by phoning my local members of government and trying to persuade them to support compassionate action. With right speech firmly in mind, I try to present a reasonable argument: I point out that no war has yet resulted in lasting peace, an outcome that can be expected from the Buddhist view of action and reaction. I also point out that everything is always changing, so that the failure of past attempts at negotiation does not mean that dialogue will not be successful at another time. The final point for the politician is a reminder that everyone wants to be happy—even Hitler thought he was doing good.
Our civilizations will only survive if we find ways to accept our cultural and spiritual differences, and help each other economically. And I do find that most politicians do have a genuine heart of goodness beneath their ambition.