With the presidential election approaching, Tricycle presents a special section, “Politics 2000”, to explore some of the religious and racial aspects specific to this election (see the discussion of Hsi Lai Temple by both Gustav Niebuhr andRussell Leong) and to present some Buddhists’ views on dharma, voting, and civic responsibility. 

Writers Charles Johnson and Neil Gordon as well as Thubten Chodron, an American nun in the Tibetan tradition, unequivocally urge Buddhists to vote; writer Anne Jeffries is not so sure. Yet they all present the essential challenge that confronts politically active Buddhists: How do you make a choice without getting attached to the choice that you make?

Johnson warns of the blind allegiance cultivated by bipartisan politics, which places “winning” ahead of ethical behavior. Thubten Chodron advocates developing wise views without clinging to them as part of our ego identity such as “I’m a Democrat” or “I am a Republican.” However, this is easier said than done. As media in America remind us at every turn, successful packaging is half the battle—and then we still have to bite. So the handlers, consultants and spinmeisters must try (however hard it may be with the current presidential contenders) to pump up our vested interests to, say, levels as great as the salivating, “I’ve got to have it” desire manufactured by fashion ads. (The same can be said of the new spate of How-to-Simplify-Your Life magazines, where articles on yoga, breathing, and meditation contradict the ads that must, in order for these magazines to stay alive, convince you that your well-being, health, your confidence, and compassion depend on new underwear and make-up, cars and foreign travel.)

Not for nothing have religious traditions been sustained by monasticism or by a laity happy with blinders, such as the Hasidim or Amish, that keep them immune to media manipulation. Yet Jeffries, herself a layperson, is not convinced that assessing the candidates and going to the polls can be done without, as she puts it, relinquishing your freedom of mind. For a Buddhist, that’s a high price to pay—one that, in fact, reduces the practice to ashes.

In “No Justice, No Peace”, Mary Talbot writes about American Buddhist lawyers and judges who have sat before others in judgement, adjudicated jail time, and prosecuted and defended in the courts. Their struggle to understand what it means to help others mediate between heaven and hell suggests that there are times when being a bodhisattva is a high price to pay for being a Buddhist—or for the privilege of being a Buddhist.

Another challenge for these courtroom Buddhists addresses the integration of dharma—which means the absolute law in terms of the way reality really works—into the practice and arbitration of “law” in its secular manifestation. What does it mean to be a Buddhist practicing within a justice system that, among other injustices, routinely and unevenly enforces the death penalty, or clogs the courts with victims of “racial profiling”?

One evening I attended a talk by Khandro Rinpoche. Something that this twenty-something Tibetan abbess said, some discussion of anger or violence or fear, induced a young man to raise his hand. In an uneasy apologetic tone, he confessed to being a Buddhist and a New York City cop, and to watching people frightened by his gun and afraid of getting arrested. Both his language and his demeanor suggested that he expected Khando Rinpoche to reply punitively. Instead, she said, “But think of how lucky it is for those people that you’re a Buddhist!”



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