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.

"Bagman Store, NYC, 2003," Courtesy of Mathieu Mercier and Jack Hanley Gallery. C-Print.
“Bagman Store, NYC, 2003,” Courtesy of Mathieu Mercier and Jack Hanley Gallery. C-Print.

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).

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