Sometime in the early ’90s, just after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Dalai Lama appeared at U.C. Berkeley, where an interviewer asked him to speak about his relationship to the communist government of China. His Holiness began reminiscing and told the crowd that when he was young and still living in Tibet, he traveled to Beijing as the guest of the Chinese. He went on to say that after being around the capital for a few weeks and observing how things worked, he just couldn’t understand how the Chinese officials could call themselves communists. Then he paused, reflected for a moment, and said, “I think maybe I myself am half Buddhist, half Marxist.” The crowd gasped in shock, partly because any reference to socialism had become taboo in America, and also, I think, because we were surprised to hear the leader of Tibet admit his identification with this political ideology, especially considering the recent history of his people.
The Dalai Lama’s remark comes back to me lately, as I wonder why there is so little political discourse in Western dharma halls. There’s plenty of talk about and engagement in social activism—hospices, aid programs for the poor and oppressed, support for opposition groups in Burma and Tibet—but there is very little talk about how to organize society and almost none about voting and political choices. Certainly, the Buddha thought about how best to organize society. After all, he started one of his own, and a socialist one at that.
Teachers are understandably reluctant to bring politics into the meditation hall, because we want all people, regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, to feel welcomed to the dharma, which has its own analysis of the world’s suffering and offers ways to ease it. Of course, meditation instructions would never be refused to someone because of their political views, and practitioners, in turn, are free to reject any political views expressed by a teacher, or else to seek a different teacher. (Is there a Western dharma teacher out there who supports the Bush administration? If so, please let me know so that I can refer people if they ask.)
Some teachers may not follow politics very closely, and we may be better off not hearing their views on the subject. However, for those of us who do follow politics, to deliberately exclude those opinions from our teaching is a form of dishonesty and does not serve either our sanghas or the wider world. We wouldn’t necessarily want to hear a dharma talk on dialectical materialism, or see a recruitment campaign for the Green Party take place in a meditation hall, but as we all know, there is a middle path. Furthermore, as dharma practitioners we would like to think that we have developed some discriminating wisdom, and I believe we are called upon to use that wisdom, especially in difficult times, to help choose the people who will govern society in ways that support dharma principles, leading to the least suffering for all.
So I humbly submit my advice to you: Vote against the Bush administration. I would guess that most of you are thinking, “Of course,” or “Duhhh!” Almost all of the people in my dharma circles express open and ready disgust at the behavior of this government, its attitude of arrogance and belligerence, its disregard for the ecology of the planet, and its reckless violence. If we were to put the Bush team to a Buddhist “religious” test, we would find it breaking all the basic precepts, except perhaps for the one against sexual misconduct (that was Clinton’s specialty).
The Bush team certainly broke the precept of speaking the truth when they misled the nation about the reasons for going to war with Iraq. Officials of the Bush government have also been found to distort science by choosing to make public only the findings of scientists who agree with their views on critical issues such as the environment and health. The question of stealing is somewhat cloudy, but the case can be made that the Bush administration hinders the just and equitable distribution of the resources of the planet, favoring tax codes that take from the poor and give to the rich, and cutting back significantly on U.S. aid to distressed nations. As for killing, the Bush team has led us into two major wars in the last four years, both of them perhaps avoidable, with unknown thousands of innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with combatants on both sides. The Bush administration also favors a major increase in military spending, even though our military budget is greater than that of the ten next-largest military budgets in the world combined. When it comes to acting for the benefit of all beings, the current administration has tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act and shows blatant disregard for ecological preservation. The litany of my complaints and disagreements could go on and on.
Of course, our social, political, and ecological problems are partly structural, the accumulated karma of our past as a nation. Furthermore, in recent decades the Democrats don’t seem to have been much better than the Republicans at moving us toward a world of peace and harmony. While I don’t know what John Kerry would be like as president, and I don’t support his call for an even stronger military, I do believe he will use a softer tone than Bush when he addresses the world, and I sense him to be a compassionate man.
Like many of you, I would love to vote for Dennis Kucinich, who wants to set up a federal Cabinet-level Department of Peace. The cynical critics point to that idea as proof of Kucinich’s inability to govern, but many of us view it as a visionary leap, a beginning step toward turning our nation and the world away from the catastrophe of war and militarism. Maybe I have become politically nai’ve (too much meditation) and don’t understand so-called realpolitik, but I don’t believe that the consequences of becoming a peaceful nation would be all that terrible. I don’t know, maybe I should just stay out of politics altogether. However, I’ll keep my litmus test for political decisions, which is based on the Buddha’s statement: “In this world, hate never dispelled hate. Only lovingkindness dispels hate.” In the end, the main reason I am voting against the Bush administration in November is that I just don’t see that lovingkindness there.
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