On a windy spring evening last year, shortly after the 139th American soldier had died in Iraq and President Bush had declared an end to “major combat operations,” my partner, Brian, and I drove to our local Borders bookstore, met up with a bunch of strangers huddled around a truck in the parking lot, and signed our names to a petition on the clipboard someone was passing from hand to hand. Within a few weeks, I was standing outside a summer arts festival wearing a button reading “Howard Dean for America” and trying to give voter registration forms to passing strangers.

I had never volunteered in a political campaign before. Partly because I came of age during the Vietnam War, and partly because I was born in South Africa and have never felt completely American, I had long defined “politics” as going to peace demonstrations, writing checks to the Sierra Club, and, almost as an afterthought, voting. I had been far more devoted to my practice as a Buddhist than to my practice as a citizen.

Related: A Call to Conscience

In my thirties, I hadn’t thought twice about rising each day before dawn, putting on a white jubon (undershirt) and a heavy black kimono, and driving through half-deserted streets in my odd, un-American clothes to sit facing a wall in the basement of the San Franciso Zen Center. In my forties, I’d willingly spent $700 every year or so to fly from California to France and study with the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Nowadays I consider my time well spent when I get up early to sit alone, or recite the lay precepts with others at our local community center.

But before the Iraq war, I had never written a substantial check to a political candidate or given a single hour to electoral democracy. Except at my first Brownie troop meeting, when they taught us flag folding, I had never touched, much less owned, an American flag. I’d been an onlooker in my own country.

Buddhist teachers I’d met had rarely suggested there was anything incomplete in this. Most had come here from countries without democratic traditions—Japan, China, Burma, Tibet, Vietnam—where the record of religious involvement in secular politics is, at best, cautionary. In ancient China, religious teachers who enjoyed the favor of emperors sometimes found themselves fleeing to mountain hermitages when the emperor’s mood changed. During the Second World War, Japanese Zen priests stood in their robes in front of ranks of kamikaze pilots, speaking encouraging words to young men about to drop bombs and die for their country. In South Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh tried to organize social service volunteers—and so disturbed the powers that be that he was forced into exile.

Politics, it seemed, got people attached to nations, parties, and particular outcomes rather than opening their hearts wide enough to include all beings. It devastated the mindfulness, detachment, and calm cultivated on the meditation cushion. It fostered greed, hate, delusion, and an overwhelming desire to just plain win.

Better, perhaps, to simplify and quiet one’s outer world and thus quiet and simplify the inner one. Better to be kind to one’s neighbor, to smile at the man in the next car on the freeway. Better to make a nest in a parallel culture, as separate as possible from the violence and corruption of the larger one.

But by the time Brian and I found ourselves in that parking lot, such sentiments no longer spoke to me. Brian has two nephews who are serving as helicopter pilots in Iraq. In photographs taped to our refrigerator, they grin out at us, strong and bright-eyed, their arms flung around the shoulders of other members of their traditional Catholic and military family. Their faces remind me of a retreat I once attended in the orange groves outside Santa Barbara, with Thich Nhat Hanh, other Vietnamese monks and nuns, and a dozen Vietnam veterans. The veterans were strong men, but not cocky. They looked as if they’d had the corners knocked off them. During the retreat, one former Marine asked forgiveness from the Vietnamese attendees for having torched villagers’ homes; another told me of murdering children; a third of finding family photographs on the body of a man he’d been forced to kill.

That is why I signed my name to that clipboard—not because I thought of electioneering as an ideal expression of the bodhisattva ideal, or considered Dean an embodiment of mindfulness in politics. (In fact, I was afraid I’d lose my practices of mindfulness and self-care, and Dean reminded me of a short, well-muscled kid who wasn’t afraid to get in the face of the class bully.) I signed because I wanted to do something to directly affect the fates of Brian’s nephews, the Iraqi families their helicopters fly over, and the 660 unnamed men living in converted cargo containers at Guantánamo Naval Base. I signed because I was sick of reading the newspaper and having helpless, repetitive, disempowered, angry conversations with Brian in which we called President Bush names.

I didn’t want Buddhism to be my excuse for sitting on the sidelines any longer—it hadn’t kept me, after all, from shopping at Banana Republic, or buying a house, or driving a half-ton car. I didn’t want to do something indirect, like teaching meditation in a prison or doing a walking meditation for peace in a public park. I wanted to remove President Bush from office first and ponder questions about the roots of violence in the human heart later. I wanted to get down in the mud and wrestle with the pig.

I remembered a conversation I’d once had with the Zen priest Issan Dorsey—a street bodhisattva and former female impersonator and speed addict who started Maitri Hospice in San Francisco. “If I hadn’t been practicing Buddhism, I wouldn’t have been so deeply involved in the AIDS crisis,” he’d told me. “Before, I didn’t like uncomfortable situations. Now I can’t stay away.”

"Untitled, The Whole Shebang, 2000," © Eduardo Del Valle and Mirta Gomez, Courtesy of the Artists and Hemphill Fine Arts. C-Print.
“Untitled, The Whole Shebang, 2000,” © Eduardo Del Valle and Mirta Gomez, Courtesy of the Artists and Hemphill Fine Arts. C-Print.

Until that spring, I had lived quietly in Mill Valley, outside San Francisco: bicycling to my office, spending the day writing, walking in the hills, and bicycling back to our house in Homestead Valley, a forested canyon on the edge of town. In the mornings I’d rise before dawn, leaving Brian asleep in our bed, to savor the silent hour when the day stretched before me like unblotted snow. With a mug of green tea in hand, I’d look out of my study window and watch the morning light creep down the canyon ridges, illuminate the big willow above my neighbor’s rooftop, and bring color back to the world. It was a precious hour, before I’d even meditated, before I’d spoken to anyone or heard another voice, before I knew of a single mistake anyone else in the world had made, and before I’d made any of my own.

That meditative hour did not survive the summer.

In August, when U.S. military death count in Iraq was up to 287, I became chair of the local Dean public relations committee. Before long, I was starting each day at my computer in my nightgown, posting messages on the Dean blogsite and answering an hour’s worth of emails.

I slept badly. Brian started calling me Mrs. Dean. By September I had written Dean three $100 checks, handed out leaflets, set up chairs at meetings at a community center, written and edited press releases, and was volunteering twenty hours a week. That month, a member of our public relations committee quit, saying that under my leadership, “It just isn’t fun anymore.”

I was up against the raw edge of the personality I wish I didn’t have: easily agitated, sometimes arrogant, and wedded to my own notions of how things should be done. Six months earlier, I had withdrawn from my local sitting group because I couldn’t agree with my coleader on whether to pass a basket for contributions or leave it on a table by the door. Now I was arguing with a Dean committee chair (a fellow Buddhist, as it happened) over whether to hold a Meetup at the community center or at a Mexican restaurant downtown.

Via the emails that I sent, received, and was copied on, I was plunged into a river of aroused emotion—of others as well as my own. I got a furious email from someone who didn’t like a flyer I’d designed, and another one five paragraphs long after I ran a classified ad without an RSVP. “Please don’t yell at me, Marianne,” read one email I was copied on by a member of my committee. “When you send an email in ALL CAPS, that’s yelling.”

Thirty years of practice—sometimes shallow, sometimes deep—did not stop my mind from racing, my breath from quickening, and my heart from pounding with hurt, anger, and fear. If Buddhism is a three-legged stool composed of ethics (shila), meditative awareness (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna), the leg of meditative awareness was collapsing under me.

In my difficulties I was not alone. Many of us in the campaign were prime examples of the phenomenon the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah had described in his noted 1985 book Habits of the Heart: uprooted people beached in a secular culture where there was little to counterbalance the values purveyed by the media, the marketplace, and the contractual and expressive ethics of psychotherapy. Few of us had ever been active members of unions, churches, Rotary Clubs, or sewing bees, where we might have learned the essence of community: the ability to set aside our own agendas and stay productively connected to people we might not have chosen as friends.

Bellah had warned that the day might come when we might forget how to work and think together, and thereby lose our democracy. As we Deaniacs came together with potluck dishes in our hands, we were trying to rebuild it. But we weren’t aware of how long it takes to attune physically to other people’s rhythms—especially when we were half mad with grief, fear, and rage over the direction of the country.

I am grateful that at about this time I stumbled across a wonderful Internet site, www.buddhaweb.org, listing what it called the “Essentials of Buddhism.” The summary included a list of the ten paramitas, or “perfections”: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, persistence, kindness, and equanimity.

I wanted to remove President Bush from office first and ponder questions about the roots of violence in the human heart later.

These aids to practice were compiled the first couple of centuries after the death of the historical Buddha as a useful guide to practice outside formal meditation. Christians might call them “virtues.” In essence, they were attitudes that I could cultivate in the midst of upsetting action.

In all my imperfection and in all the imperfection of the Dean campaign, I did my best to practice the paramitas. I stopped reading email in the mornings. Instead, I’d go to my study, look at my willow tree, and, if I was embroiled in conflict, imagine myself in the other person’s shoes. If I had arranged that Meetup at the Mexican restaurant and it hadn’t worked out, how would I feel if someone went over my head to complain? I’d think of the opportunities I’d taken (or missed) to be tolerant, truthful, and kind. When needed, I would call the other person, apologize, and do my best to forgive myself.

When I was a child in England, after my family had left South Africa, an old ferrywoman had once transported us on a flat-bottomed raft across a river to a pub on the opposite bank. She pulled the whole family silently and easily across the water, moving her hands along a smooth strong wire strung from one bank to the other. The paramitas were like that—a wire that I pulled on, hand over hand.

In January, when Dean was leading in the polls and 529 American soldiers had been killed in Iraq, I flew to Des Moines to knock on the doors of strangers in the week before the Iowa caucuses. I’d assumed I would find a cow town, but Des Moines contained acre after acre of bungalows once kept painted and proud by union factory workers who built John Deere tractors, Amana refrigerators, and Maytag washers—factories and jobs now long gone overseas.

On my first day, a man in his underwear peered out from a door and said, “I’ve got two words for you: George Bush.” Others tottered out on walkers as I stood at their open doors, asking them to drive to the caucuses in eight-degree weather. If they told me they were voting for Kerry, Gephardt, Kucinich, or Edwards, I sometimes came close to haranguing them.

By the second day, I knew that Dean would lose. Involuntarily or not, I began to experience the gift of the paramita of nekhamma, often translated as renunciation, which I like to think of as letting go of outcomes. I began to say, “They’re all good men. Any one of them would be better than what we have now,” and “Just go to the caucuses and vote, that’s the important thing.” One woman couldn’t go because she took care of an autistic grandson while her daughter worked. Others said they’d be at a second job, or at night school. A man with long glossy hair and a thousand-mile stare told me he was a felon and couldn’t vote.

By the third day, I was aware that my preference was just a view. I could request, invite, and offer, but I could not tell, teach, or persuade. I was begging, the way some monks beg, door to door. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I felt gratitude for living in a democracy where I could travel two thousand miles to talk to strangers about the direction of our nation, and gratitude that so many of them invited me in.

I could practice generosity and equanimity here as easily as I could in the zendo or the laundromat. All the world is a Buddha-field, even a national election. And Iowans who had never heard of a single Buddhist precept practiced generosity, patience, kindness, and equanimity toward me when they found me on their doorsteps, shivering, full of enthusiasm, nervousness, and hope.

The night of the caucuses, when his defeat was clear, Dean spoke to his supporters in an old ballroom in West Des Moines. What I remember most about the occasion is not Dean’s purported, repeatedly televised “scream,” but the moment before it, when campaign workers passed little American flags from hand to hand. It felt like a foreign object in my hand: It’s been a difficult symbol for me ever since, at the age of seven, I ambivalently pledged my allegiance to it as a newly arrived immigrant. No longer an onlooker, I took a flag and waved.

I flew home vowing to bring balance back into my life, got ready to transfer my efforts to John Kerry—and came home in a deeper way. Politics, it turns out, is informing my Buddhism just as Buddhism is informing my politics. I’d learned a lot from Dean: As governor of Vermont, he had tried to get universal health care coverage through the state legislature. When that failed, he had spent the next decade widening eligibility for existing state programs until 99 percent of the children in the state were covered as well as the bulk of the working poor. Much can be gained, he taught me indirectly, by abandoning idealism, accepting what is, and cooperating with so-called “enemies.” I wonder what might happen if, rather than dismissing fundamentalist Christians as backward and hypocritical, I had a respectful and curious conversation with one of them.

Knocking on doors in Des Moines, I remembered that Buddhism is a practice of penetrating and accepting the here and now—not only the bliss of meditation, but the irritations of mundane human interaction and the pain in the morning paper. Just as the lotus needs muddy water to live, the pain of the world can inspire compassionate and effective action. The imperfect, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, is our paradise.

I returned home aware of my rootlessness—a rootlessness I share with many an American Buddhist who has packed up a car or a knapsack and moved to Dharamsala or Thailand or Boulder or Barre or Halifax or San Francisco to join a religious community. Those days are over for me. I am thoroughly a householder now, sharing my life with a man I love and acting as honorary stepmother to his two sons. I am not a monk or a floating cloud. It is time I stopped pretending to be a home-leaver (a concept more spiritually useful to would-be monks in medieval Asia than to young people in a fragmented modern America, anyway) and got rooted myself.

I am writing these words at 6:15 in the morning in my study, drinking my ritual green tea in the house Brian and I have shared for the past three years. Last month, I saw Brian’s nephew at a family wedding; he had just returned from the fighting in Fallujah and was holding his eight-month-old baby, whom he had not seen since she was two weeks old. His wife—who now vehemently opposes the war and wants her husband out of the military—whispered to me that he startles when he hears a car backfire, and cannot sleep. More than eight hundred of his fellow soldiers have now died in Iraq, along with countless Iraqi men, women, and children.

This particular morning the moon is still out—a bright communion wafer—and the wind reminds me in some ineffable way of the deep nights I spent in Plum Village a decade ago. In the darkness, I can see only the black outline of the willow. I slide back the window and bring in the air and the sounds of the day—a truck backing up, probably at the Whole Foods down the block, a finch trilling, another bird whistling, and then the crows setting up a racket. The wind rustles the trees. I feel amazing pleasure.

This is the moment when I simply live, before the morning newspaper and my anger and worry. My life swings between these two poles: from stillness to action, from activity to recovery. It is a bellows, in and out, with the breath.

The willow quickens and turns green in the light. Behind me on the wall is the flag I was given in Des Moines and a photograph of a tree in winter, with a quote from the French political philosopher Simone Weil: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least understood need of the human soul.”

I am willing to take the bitter with the sweet. To take refuge now, in this minute, in this ragged, imperfect breath. I owe this country more than voting and paying my DMV fees and as little as I can of my taxes. I owe it my heart and something of my identity. Like the monk in Zen’s famous ten oxherding pictures, it is time for me to enter the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands—and receive the bliss that others, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, bestow. I want to root myself in this imperfect, good-enough suburban place. In this flawed, adopted, beloved country that is my home.

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