Buddhist teachers respond to Trump’s presidential win

After Donald Trump’s stunning upset, Lion’s Roar has reached out to a number of Buddhist teachers for their individual responses.

Rod Meade Sperry
11 November 2016

After Donald Trump’s stunning upset, Lion’s Roar reached out to a number of Buddhist teachers for their responses. Pema Chödrön, Norman Fischer, Roshi Joan Halifax, Ethan Nichtern, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Noah Levine, and more provide commentary and words of comfort.

Pema Chödrön

During difficult times like this, I’m feeling that the most important thing is our love for each other and remembering to express that and avoid the temptation to get caught in negative and aggressive thinking. Instead of polarizing, this is a chance to stay with the groundlessness. I’ve been meditating and getting in touch with a deep and profound sadness. It’s hard to stay with that much vulnerability but that’s what I’m doing. Groundlessness and tenderness and sadness have so much to teach us. I’m feeling that it’s a time to contact our hearts and to reach out and help in anyway we can.

Norman Fischer, Everyday Zen Foundation

I usually don’t completely believe what I think, so when Trump won the election I was, like everyone else, surprised, but not that surprised. Bodhisattvas are committed to their practice, which means to sit, to get up, and to sweep the garden — the whole world, close in and far away — every day, no matter what. They have always done this, they always will. Good times, bad times, they keep on going just the same. Bodhisattvas play the long game. They have confidence in the power of goodness over time. And they know that dark times bring out the heroic in us.

For those older among us who hold liberal and progressive political views, let’s not forget we survived Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. It wasn’t pleasant but we survived. We will survive Trump. This is not to say that the policies of those presidents weren’t bad, and that they did not make any lasting impact. They were and they did. Still, we survived. We will survive Trump. As of today, we don’t really know what will happen under Trump because nothing he has said so far means much. He seems not to have much commitment to his own words.

It’s OK to freak out, grieve, and vent for a while. Then we can get back to work, as always, for the good.

We have been fortunate to have had eight years with a decent, intelligent, thoughtful and caring human being in the White House. This is more we would have expected. Lets not forget that the same people who elected Obama elected Trump.

It’s OK to freak out, grieve, and vent for a while. Holds each others’ hands. Then we can get back to work, as always, for the good.

Think of what the Dalai Lama has gone through in his lifetime. He maintains daily practice, he maintains kindness for everyone, though he has lost his country and his culture at the hands of a brutal regime. Yet he doesn’t hate the Chinese and finds redeeming features in them. He maintains his sense of humor. He has turned his tragedy into a teaching for the world.

Lets do the same.

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Village Zendo

We are all reeling from the election news. For most of us, it is unexpected and frightening. Naturally, we ask ourselves what teaching can support us and empower us at this time. I think of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion who “hears the sounds of the world.”

Perhaps we have not been listening to the cries of the world with ears of wisdom and determination.

And I realize how vital it is for all of us to listen to all the sounds of this unhappy nation. What suffering has led to the anger and hatred that has arisen?  And, why are so many of us surprised at this outpouring?  Perhaps we have not been listening to the cries of the world with ears of wisdom and determination.

This we must do, listen carefully, and while listening, we must move with determination to organize, to mobilize, and to find new ways to create change in civil rights, climate change, media ethics, and to inform and enlighten all the people, so that we can in fact relieve suffering and care for this planet, these peoples, all of us.

Noah Levine, Against the Stream

Here in the United States of Samsara ignorance is the status quo. The Buddha’s teachings guide us to go “against the stream” to develop wisdom and compassion through our own direct actions. As the path encourages, “Even amongst those who hate, we live with love in our hearts. Even amongst those who are blinded by greed and confusion, we practice generosity, kindness and clear seeing.” Meditate and Destroy!

Ethan Nichtern, Shambhala Meditation Center of New York

When I was a child in New York City, I used to imagine that I lived in an island off the coast of America which was neither part of the continent nor the country. In the middle of the night last night, that childhood fantasy came back to me, but it was only wishful thinking. In fact, the source of all this disruption hails from the same city, which is a great reminder that we are all connected. I am a citizen of the mainland United States and I remain a very proud and patriotic one.

Right now my mindfulness practice is dedicated to my many friends who are expressing such unbearable hurt and fear at the hatred and abuse which this current version of America has directed at them. My many friends who are women, People of Color, members of the LGBT community, immigrants, and non-Christians are all rightfully expressing their fear and traumas right now, and I want to especially be there for them.

Soon, perhaps, I will try to make contact with those I know who voted for this outcome and do my best to listen to their fears and desires as well. I have no idea how that will go but I will do my best.

It is OK to grieve the fact that we have taken a massive emotional and spiritual step backwards.

I also feel at least some optimism that this outcome sharpens and clarifies where humanity stands in the 21st-century.  All of us must come together with empathy and connection if we are going to survive this era.

Tomorrow I will try to follow the lead of those whose vision I trust to see how I can help move our world forward with compassion. But today, it is OK to grieve the fact that we have taken a massive emotional and spiritual step backwards. Please remember, the point of meditation is not to suppress your feelings. It is to make friends with yourself. On days like this, meditation is simply a way to remember a glimmer of your own basic goodness. Please remember it is OK to feel exactly what you feel.

In loving kindness and solidarity with the human race, Ethan

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Today, after the 2016 elections in the U.S., we are living out the example of what happens when what goes unacknowledged surfaces and it feels like a new reality but you know in your heart it is not. To suffer based on expectations is to live haunted and hunted. But we are fortunate. There could be no other answer to our meditation and prayers in dissolving hatred than to be placed front and center with it and be exposed. When a shift in a system has occurred, especially one that causes fear and discomfort, it allows for something strikingly different to appear, furthering our evolution as people. We can only know where we are going when we get there.

Now is the time we have been practicing for.

Many of us have been practicing Buddha’s teachings or walking a spiritual journey forever and preparing for every moment of our existence. We are ready and have been waiting for this time. Our rage, pain, and anger are to be exposed if only for us to transform and mature with it. In Buddhist practice we say congratulations because now is the time we have been practicing for. No more just practicing the dance. We must now dance. And this is not a dress rehearsal.

Roshi Joan Halifax, Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

Standing at the edge of this election, it’s clear we have our work cut out for us. It is the work of love and wisdom in the face of the terrible suffering of war, environmental issues, racism, gender violence, and economic injustice. We have to work together to shift the tide toward what will benefit our children, the natural world, the future. Part of this means that we have to change the mind, move out of harsh negativity, eroding futility and fear, and build toward the good and the wise. We also have to work to shift the mood of the country and of the world through compassionate education, deep practice, and service to others.

Let’s reach through differences, listen deeply, and “give no fear.”

So please, stop and look deeply, and let’s work together in not building a contentious future, but a generative one. And let’s not pretend we know, but be open and learn; let’s bear witness to what is happening in our country, in our world, and take wise, compassionate, and courageous responsibility. Let’s reach through differences, listen deeply, and “give no fear.”

Here are the four great vows of the Bodhisattvas in community:

Creations are numberless, we vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, we vow to transform them.

Reality is Boundless, we vow to perceive it.

The awakened way is unsurpassable, we vow to embody it.

…. do not squander life!

Rev Andy Hoover, Blue Mountain Lotus Society Sangha (and Legislative Director at ACLU of Pennsylvania)

Those of us who came out on the losing end of the election are going through a wide range of emotions and maybe even physical reactions. The world’s spiritual practices talk a lot about compassion for others, but in our practice, we emphasize the additional importance of compassion for yourself. If you have the privilege of flexibility at work, take a day off. If you don’t, make time for yourself. Maybe you’re off on Friday for the holiday. The weather in Harrisburg at least is supposed to be nice on Friday and over the weekend. Go to a mountain, a lake, a river, a park, an art museum, or anywhere that you can be in open space. Take a road trip. Take time to slow down and care for yourself.

We are lucky that impermanence is built into our system of government.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is the reality of impermanence. There is nothing in this world- nothing- that lasts forever. We are lucky that impermanence is built into our system of government. The value of recognizing the reality of impermanence is that a) we cherish the people and circumstances that bring us joy and b) we know that hard times pass.

We also give ourselves a great deal of anxiety and cause suffering for ourselves by fixating on predictions of the future. I’m not naive here. Donald Trump said clearly for over a year the kind of things he wants to do, and we have to prepare and work against that eventuality. Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” I agree with her. It is also true that the future literally does not exist at this minute that I’m typing this and that you’re reading it.

That’s the easy part. The last thought I want to throw out there is something for which, frankly, there is no easy answer. The winner of the presidential election built his campaign on division. In our practice, we use the word separation. If our practice could be summarized in one sentence, it is this: We awaken to the oneness of all beings and act on it. That’s what drives me in the work that I do.

Our President-Elect built his support by being very clear that, far from oneness, his worldview is one of separation. And a lot of our fellow Americans agree. It is trite to say, “They are suffering beings, like all of us.” It’s true. But it’s trite.

On this question or koan, I put my civil liberties hat back on. I take solace in knowing that more than 50 million Americans embraced the message of moving forward together, seeing the importance of equality and fairness. More people voted for that message than voted for Trump’s message of fear and division.

If the Trump crowd thinks they can hurt all of the people they’ve said they want to hurt — they better be prepared for resistance.

So when you try to explain this to your kids and other loved ones, please please please emphasize to them that we’re going to keep working for that vision of oneness. Make sure they know that millions of Americans are with them. I want my LGBTQ friends, my immigrant friends, my black friends, my Latino friends, my Muslim friends, my female friends, and everyone who feels vulnerable right now to know that we are in this together and we will struggle together and we- all of us- will not let this country go backwards. And if the Trump crowd thinks they can do that- that they can hurt all of the people they’ve said they want to hurt- they better be prepared for resistance.

Last thing: If you feel like you need guidance and help through what is, essentially, a mourning process, do not hesitate to contact us at Blue Mountain Lotus Society. Our teachers provide spiritual counseling in a non-religious setting. We’ve worked with people of all faiths and no faith. If you need help, ask for it.

James Ishmael Ford, Boundless Way Zen

I rather feel like I’ve awakened on the day after the apocalypse. As a member of the progressive community I am shocked and profoundly saddened by Trump’s campaign, which unapologetically appealed to fear of, if not outright hatred of pretty much all others. He casually insulted anyone not precisely like him, and frankly seemed to be little more than an incarnation of America’s Id. And, whatever I think of him and that campaign, while he in fact does not seem to have won a majority of America’s voters over, he did win the Electoral College and with that the election.

So, what now? I find a couple of emotions rising within my heart. One is to flee. I understand Canada’s immigration website crashed due to the number of visits to it last night. Of course that also represents all the privilege I bring along with being white and male and middle class. And beyond those immediate facts, I am cautioned by the Buddha’s “last temptation,” to take the peace and equanimity he found and to retire from the world. While he was a renunciant, he did not retire away from the world, but rather brought his monastic practice into the larger community, and continued to live and teach among people living in the world. The deeper point to this is that we are in fact made up of the world and there is no escape.

The other emotion racing over my heart has been to place blame, mostly on others, but also on myself. What would have been a better, or more skillful, simply put, more successful strategy? Who is responsible for this mess? And what shortcomings are at fault? These are in fact important things to consider, particularly those relevant to our own individual hearts, but to take a necessary step and make it what we’re about would be just one more mistake on a long list of mistakes. In this world we have to make decisions and some large percentage of them will be wrong. I’m ever mindful of our popular Western adaptation of something Eihei Dogen said, “one continuous mistake.”

So, what to do? What to do?

For me I find a couple of things are critical. One is to not forget my practice. Taking time and returning to the pillow is critical. For all sorts of reasons, but most of all to help me recall the fundamental matters of presence and intimacy.

The bottom line is recalling there is no separation.

Another is to recall all the suffering of the world. For me this starts with those who are terrorized by the event, the immigrant, the person of color, the GBLT person, women, everyone who seems themselves the target of Mr Trump’s campaign of purity. But, also, to recall the hurt and fear that led so many people to support him. To simply dismiss their emotions by cavalier broad struck condemnations, while it feels good, and I do like doing that, ultimately does no good. The Buddha was right in the great play of cause and effect we are all of us caught up in layer upon layer of grasping after things in flux.

For me the bottom line is recalling there is no separation. We have to act. There is no alternative. But, what will that action look like? More hate? More blame and condemnations? Or, can we genuinely recall there is in the last analysis no goal, but only the path? I think, feel, believe, if we can recall that last thing, we are all of us in this together, we are all of us, at the end, one; well, then ways through will appear.

We met the enemy and he is us. We met the friend and he is us. That is the secret that will win the ultimate victory.

Doug Phillips, Empty Sky Sangha

Like many of you I went to bed last night with a sense of foreboding, but supported by the clear denial that a Trump presidency was simply not possible. Having tea early this morning I checked the NY Times and the reality hit; followed by the nausea-fed fear, loathing, and the roiling thought storm that fed them.

As I began to label the thoughts and return to the strong bodily sensations I was struck by how easily we are pulled from the immediacy of this life in this moment by thoughts of a future that none of us can predict; how easily we abandon our practice of being fully here now for a misery producing fantasy. It clearly takes great courage and intention to fully embody our actual life when the ground we thought was solid begins to shake, rattle and roll. And yet this is what we are called to as a life of practice and where the Buddha pointed as the only time and place we will every have the opportunity to be awake and free. Strong stuff.

I came across the following koan presented in a talk last night by John Tarrant, which you can access at the Pacific Zen Institute site, under the video section:

The Governor asked a teacher:  I have read in the scripture the following and I do not know what it means. “A boat driven by unfavorable winds drifts towards the land of the demons.”  Please explain it to me.

The teacher responded: What kind of ninny asks such a stupid question!

The Governor visibly stiffened and turn red with rage.

The teacher said:  A boat driven by unfavorable winds drifts towards the land of the demons. The Governor’s demeanor suddenly changed as he got some understanding.

Please let us vow not to be driven toward the demon lands by these strong, disconcerting, and unfavorable winds. Let us vow to commit ourselves to this practice of self-knowing in relationship with whatever mirror we are facing. Let us take that clarity and kindness into this divided, frightened, and frightening world knowing that our practice of awakening, if true, excludes nothing nor anyone.

Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Zen Center of Los Angeles

Some words to my sangha:

dear stewards,

this is a time when you must know what you stand for.
this is a time to let go and allow zazen to steady and sustain you.
this is a time when you vow to listen, listen deeply to the cries of the world and shed your own tears.
this is a time to not just hear echoes of your own ideas but learn from someone who is not like you.
this is a time when the bubbles are bursting and determination is raised.
this is a time to be fierce in the dharma values of unity, inclusion, respect for diversity, and doing beneficial acts for all.
actually, zen center’s vision says it all: let us create an enlightened world free of suffering in which all beings live in harmony, everyone has enough, deep wisdom is realized, and compassion flows unhindered.
whether you are grieving or rejoicing this morning, please offer up your own sentiment to each other.

Jules Shuzen Harris, Soji Zen Center

In light of recent events, if ever there was a time to invoke Avalokitesvara — it’s now! As Bodhisattvas, we need to open our hearts, drop our preconceptions and need for security. Listen and remember that we are ONE BODY!

Josh Korda, Dharma Punx NYC

When faced with dispiriting, painful, threatening events, such as the dismal election of Donald Trump, I tend to rely heavily on my practice at first. My instincts at this time aren’t to rush out onto the streets Union Square where others I suspect must already be gathered in protest, though given my activist background I certainly understand and appreciate that impulse. Nor have I turned to the logical circuits of my brain, hoping to calmly and logically uncover the meaning to this catastrophe. (Sure, I cherish my ideas as much as the next person, and it would be great to believe that any catastrophe in life can be turned into a puzzle that can be solved: “We’ll all be ok if we can figure out what to do next.”) Nor do I initially bring out the metta phrases, wishing ease and serenity for myself and all beings—even those helped a tyrant assume such power. Again, I deeply respect compassion practice, but it’s not where I head first during such times.

For me action, wisdom and compassion can only play a role after I take a period of time to connect with and hold the emotions that arise after such events; in this instance I feel sadness, shock, confusion, fear, frustration. Furthermore, Trump to me is what could be called a trigger, in that I perceive him to be the archetypical abusive father (not to mention male sexual predator). You see I spent my early years hiding from my father’s violent drunken outbursts, and it took years of therapy, counseling and spiritual practice to address the tendencies I have to seek security via hypervigilance, substance abuse and obsessive ideation, cycles of which I spent my 20s and early 30s. I still feel the resides of those impulses as well: to fight, flee or freeze.

My practice now is to turn directly towards the emotional pain, which expresses itself non-verbally, via the tightness around my eyes, a tense jaw, contracted shoulders and throat that feels slightly strangulated. My abdominal muscles have felt clenched since Tuesday night. Embodied awareness keeps me from being trapped and captivated by outraged inner chatter or speculative catastrophizing over how bad things could get (neither of which leads anywhere particularly useful or appealing). So I stay with the experience; I have an inner child that right now needs a lot of soothing attention.

Finally, after time spent attending to the emotions, I employ metta like phrases “It’s okay, I’m here. How can I make you feel safer?” (Safer, not safe, which is an important distinction.) Today I practice in a location where I feel free from danger, my backyard; the sun creates soothing sensations, a safe shelter for what needs to be felt.

The next step is expressing my grief, disappointment and frustration to others; I lean on my wife and a few friends. The ultimate safe container to process the dreadful is someone who doesn’t try to fix, solve, instruct, judge or criticize what I’m feeling. Perhaps I’ll also write about it, which actually I’m doing here, in this piece. Any way I can give a voice to the feelings is worthwhile, so long as its not creating more suffering in the world.

In a few days I will connect with my sangha, where we will no doubt share our emotional pain, and perhaps some wisdom guiding us towards right action. No doubt, down the line, this will entail marching in the streets, volunteering to assist programs that will be defunded, or direct action. All that’s to come. For right now I need to tend to the emotional wounds, not bypass them.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

On this cheerful unaffected glorious day of democracy playing itself out, I am as shocked as many of you are by the election results. But, as Americans, we must respect the democratic system that our country was built upon, and welcome its results. Trump has won, and now we must see what happens next. While firmly believing in, and defending, one’s values and principles, we must also give this new president-elect the benefit of the doubt, and be open to see what he and his new administration can do for the good of our country. We want to honor the voice of many and trust in the goodness of the country. We want to respect our differences and also believe that there is goodness in everyone. We cannot afford to fall into pessimism. We must continually see where we can unite and keep looking forward together as this new era unfolds, without fixed pre-concepts.

Jan Willis, Professor Emerita of Religion, Wesleyan University

The 2016 presidential campaign and, now, the election last week has been unlike any other in our history; in many ways it has been draining and toxic for many and it has opened up deep wounds. It has left the United States of America a deeply divided nation. Fueled in large part by hatred, racism, misogyny and xenophobia, how could it have been otherwise?

But the election has been determined. Though former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton garnered the most popular votes, Mr. Trump won the most Electoral College votes. He is now our president. I say “our” but, for many of us, it does not feel that way. It is not a victory we can or wish to claim as ours. For Donald Trump’s victory was actually a huge loss—for immigrants to this country, for women’s rights, for LGBTQ rights, for health-care rights, for reproductive rights and for the rights of people of color.

As President-elect Trump now prepares to form his cabinet, we must prepare ourselves to defend those hard-won rights and to help to ease the fears of those who now feel threatened. How do we do this? On a national level, by remaining vigilant and by remaining vocal when rights are threatened. On the personal level, by committing to serve as caring and compassionate warriors for those who are experiencing fear. By our compassionate presence. By being there to listen to personal grievances. By giving, as much as we can, the gifts of fearlessness and hope. By remaining vigilant. In Buddhism, those bodhisattvas (beings who put others’ welfare before their own) are often referred to as “brave” bodhisattvas. Now, more than ever, we have to be wise, compassionate and brave.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar’s online source for committed Buddhists, and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.