Monk and main altar, with 9-11 side altar, at the Cambodian Buddhist Association of Richmond

As the American and Canadian elections approach, there’s been much discussion among North American Buddhists over how Buddhism relates to politics.  Among many converts to Buddhism, at least those willing to speak publicly on the matter, there’s a near unanimity that Buddhists must vote for Barack Obama because he is the only candidate whose views and policies align with good Dharma.  The current issue of Shambhala Sun has an article extolling the revolutionary presence of Obama on the Democratic ticket, and while it doesn’t explicitly endorse him, the overwhelmingly positive way in which he is discussed leaves little doubt as to where the author’s and editors’ sympathies lie.  Likewise, here on the Tricycle Editors’ Blog, a recent post urging people to vote was signed only by convert white Buddhists, and while it too doesn’t explicitly endorse Obama, the lefty Sutra quote and general tenor of the post make it easy to read between the lines.  Meanwhile, in countless discussions online and off, North American convert Buddhists have been considerably less demure than the big English-language Buddhist magazines.

But there’s a danger in assuming that Buddhism and left-wing politics inherently go together, and that Buddhists ought to vote for liberals because they’re Buddhist.  Historically speaking, Buddhism has tended to support conservative status quo regimes in Asia, going all the way back to India.  In the contemporary world, virtually all of the democratic countries with a significant Buddhist population are currently ruled by right-wing political groups.

Here in North America, there are large numbers of registered Republican Buddhists.  Many of them are Asian-Americans, immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who fled left-wing violence in their native countries.  One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans.  Anti-Communism drives many such Buddhists into the Republican Party, as does similar views on traditional values, economic policy, patriotism, and other issues.

One of the greatest disconnects with the Democrats is over abortion, which the Democratic Party supports and the Republican Party opposes.  The belief that life begins at conception is nearly universal across Buddhist Asia, and the overwhelming majority of Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests believe abortion to be a violation of the first precept.  This has led many Buddhist leaders in Asian-American communities to endorse Republican candidates.  At the same time, we have to be careful about stereotyping Asian-American Buddhism, a diverse phenomenon that also includes many Democrats and other liberals.

When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one.  Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic.  Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.

Even within this demographic of convert Buddhism, there is reason to think that there are significant numbers of right-wing Buddhists who largely remain quiet about their views, perhaps from a feeling that they are actively silenced by the strident voices of their left-wing fellow practitioners.  We can see evidence of this in the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape survey.  The survey is flawed, but one area it does manage to capture fairly well are precisely these convert Buddhists, who if anything are over-represented in the survey sample.  Even in this survey that skews in some ways toward the more liberal end of American Buddhism, we find that 18% of Buddhists are Republican in orientation and 44% consider themselves moderates or conservatives, not liberals.  18% is about one out of five, yet the proportion of English-language Buddhist blogs, magazines, and newsletters that express support for Republican candidates is clearly far lower than this.  This should suggest that Republican convert Buddhists, a sizable minority, either do not have equal access to media to express their views, or feel intimidated into not making such expressions.  The lack of a reasonable argument for Republican Buddhism, therefore, may not be because there is no such argument, but because liberal Buddhists create an environment wherein such sentiments are difficult to express.

North American Buddhism is already seriously divided along lines of race and approach to practice, even though there are also some people and groups who manage to partially bridge these gaps.  The political season helps to reveal another, less acknowledged divide between those who see Buddhism as naturally, self-evidently liberal, and the large but less vocal contingent of moderate and conservative Buddhists in our midst.  This is by no means meant to suggest that liberal Buddhists shouldn’t vote for Democratic (or even more progressive) candidates, or that Buddhist values can’t be legitimately used to support a liberal political agenda.  I’ve already voted–for Barack Obama–via absentee ballot.  But in the rush to annoint him as the logical Buddhist candidate, let’s try to remain mindful of the fact that Buddhism is a lot larger and more diverse than our own particular (usually almost completely monochromatic and politically monolithic) sanghas, and that whatever side we come down on, there are a significant number of sincere, committed, thoughtful Buddhists who reach political opinions nearly opposite of our own.

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