If Buddha had added a ninth practice to the Eightfold Path, it might have been Right Voting. Voting is a manifestation of the law of interdependence: Each of our actions, no matter how small, affects the whole cosmos. Our votes count. True, more people voted for Gore than Bush in 2000, but a great many people did vote for Bush, and if just a handful more had voted for Gore, history would have unfolded differently. The law of karma is operative. There are many causes and conditions that get a person a job in the Oval Office—or the mayor’s office, or the office of the superintendent of schools—but your voting is a big one.
When I am in my local polling place in the neighborhood senior center, I think of voting as part of the practice of Right Speech. I have considered the issues and made a choice, and now I am joining with the whole electorate to exercise my hard-won right to speak my mind. For me, to throw away my right to vote would be an example of wrong speech—of failing to speak up when speaking up could matter to the well-being of others.
Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says that voting was a religious act in her family when she was growing up. We can sanctify voting within our circle of family and friends, gathering all of the information and sitting down to study it together, discussing issues and making our best decision. Consider taking a child or teenager with you to the polls, to show him or her that voting is a privilege, a duty, and something to do from a deep place of respect and thoughtfulness. As Buddhist writer and activist Melody Chavis says, “If Dharma Gates are really boundless, the door to the voting booth is one of them.”
2. Do the Nitty-gritty Work of Supporting Democratic Elections
As Buddhists, we take up the work of the community. We weed the garden, we wash the dishes. Dan Ellsberg (the peace activist best known for giving the top-secret Pentagon papers to the press) says, “Don’t be afraid to do what seems trivial or humble. Don’t think: This is a job for somebody else who isn’t as busy as I am. ”
One way to take up the work of the community is by registering voters. When we register people to vote, especially in neighborhoods where registration is low, we are literally spreading democracy and giving people a bit more power. Many people have absorbed cynicism and hopelessness from the media: a feeling that nothing will change no matter what they do, or that all of the candidates are alike and will do nothing to help ordinary people’s lives. On every ballot are at least some issues that are immediately relevant to everyone—public transportation, schools, public health, prisons—but often, most people have not heard of these issues. Registering people to vote and talking with them one-on-one about issues is a kind of dharma teaching because it shows people how we all have some measure of responsibility for Out world and an opportunity to participate in making decisions.
At the present time, it is particularly important to register voters in the sixteen states in which the projected vote in the presidential election is uncertain. Anyone of these states could determine who is our next president: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. If you don’t already live in a swing state, plan a vacation or visit friends and family in one of the swing states. Go to www.drivingvotes.org for excellent information about how to help with voter registration in these states.
Sign up to be an election monitor and work for clean elections. See Public Campaign’s website: www.publicampaign.org. Volunteer to help out with the campaign of a candidate you support. And beyond the election, work for a cause that speaks to your deepest values: welfare rights, abolition of the death penalty, music in the schools…
3. Give Money.
Dana, or generosity, is an essential Buddhist practice, and the first of the paramitas, or practices of perfection. Giving is the antidote to greed, which is the cause of much of our suffering. By giving generously to the candidate or cause of your choice, you are training yourself to overcome clinging, thereby cultivating joy, now and in the future. And when you practice giving, you will be creating good karma for yourself. What you give comes back to you. What did you come to this earth to do, anyway? To hoard money in a bank account, or to awaken to the full possibilities of your human life? We tend to think money is dirty, but if you have money to give, any money at all, you have an opportunity to express your Buddha-nature. Holding on tight to your money is what gets it a little tarnished.
Try giving to a political cause you believe in with the same spirit of selfless generosity with which you would give to a mendicant monk. Unfortunately, as we have been finding out, money makes a huge difference in the outcome of elections. Organizations like MoveOn.org are putting money to good use for the cause of democracy and peace. What is it worth to you, in dollars, to see the environmental, international, and social-service policies of this country change? Don’t think that what you can give is too small; many small gifts add up. And why not give more than you ever expected to give? Whatever happens, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you tried.
4. Read and Write.
Educate yourself about the issues. It’s traditional for Buddhists to study the sutras, or teachings. We can find sutras not only in the Pali canon but in stones and grasses, as the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen tells us, and today we can find sutras in alternative media sources. As Buddhists we try to see things as they are. The mainstream news media don’t show us things as they are, but rather things as the powers-that-be would like us to believe they are. We need to reach out to other sources of information. There are many excellent news sources among the alternative media. Try reading The Nation, listening to Pacifica Radio, or going online to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, www.fair.org). It’s particularly instructive for Americans to read news media from other countries. This will help you see how narrow in scope is the news reporting that we get in the United States. I have found it educational to go to the British newspaper The Guardian at www.guardian.co.uk, and I recommend that you stretch your mind, as I did mine, at the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera, at http://english.aljazeera.net/english. It’s not the voice of terrorism, after all.
As you educate yourself, you will have more confidence. Write a letter to the editor, or write an Op-Ed piece, stating your views about important issues that are not being addressed. And do so without a mindof hatred.
5. Listen and Talk to People You Don’t Agree With
If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that, as Buddha pointed out, all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. A Buddhist practices nonattachment to views. If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.
Learn Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a model developed by Marshall Rosenberg (see “Say It Right,” Tricycle, Winter 2002), which fosters respect and empathy even under difficult conditions. Attend a workshop, or get a trainer to come to your group. The skills learned in NVC can be helpful in talking about the coming election with people who are undecided about whom to vote for. See the website for the Center for Nonviolent Communication: www.cnvc.org, and Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.Remember, we are all related and interconnected, whether we like each other or not, present administration not excepted.
6. Share the Good News. Celebrate the Positive. Thank Your Elected Representatives When They Act With Courage.
As Shantideva writes in The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,
Praise all who speak the truth,
And say, “Your words are excellent.”
And when you notice others acting well,
Encourage them in terms of warm approval.
There is good news from time to time, and we need to hear it. Protect yourself and your mind from too much negativity. Not turning away from suffering doesn’t mean wallowing in the horror of it all. Use mindfulness practice to notice how you feel when you are reading the paper or watching TV, and if you find yourself falling into despair, find a way to transform it. Limit the amount of time or change the time of day when you follow the news. Trade neck and shoulder rubs with a partner while you watch TV. Give yourself the assignment of finding at least one piece of good news in the daily paper (for example, today: “Thousands of Democracy Supporters March in Hong Kong”). Keep your elected representatives’ phone numbers handy, and follow up your daily news intake with a phone call about whatever seems most important.
You need to take care of yourself and your energy so that you can act for peace. Read and be inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s new book on activism, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
7. Create Community.
As Buddhist practitioners, we take refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Sometimes, in our enthusiasm for meditating, bowing, chanting, and lighting sticks of incense, we emphasize the first two jewels and neglect sangha, or community. Working for social justice provides ample opportunity for the cultivation of sangha.
Have a house party to focus on a particular issue or project. It could be a get-out-the-vote party, a letter-writing party, a fund-raiser for an organization you support, an educational evening with a speaker on Iraq, or a viewing and discussion of a video on the Middle East. Invite a dozen friends over and make it a potluck. If your friends are so inclined, you might begin with a period of meditation. Or enlarge the scope of the gathering and have a block party to get to know your neighbors. Join with others joyfully, turning away from that all-too-familiar, downward-spiraling conversation that leads to cynicism and paralysis. MoveOn.org‘s book, 50 Ways to Love Your Country, is full of helpful suggestions.
Form an affinity group, a group of people who want to work with you in an ongoing effort to make a difference. An affinity group may emerge from a house party or a block party. You can give each other courage as you act for peace in the world. Organize a nonviolence training session for your affinity group in preparation for taking part in a demonstration or even an act of civil disobedience. Two of the national organizations that provide nonviolence trainers to groups are the Fellowship of Reconciliation (www.forusa.org) and the War Resisters League (www.warresisters.org).
8. Make a Firm Commitment to What You Are Going To Do.
Determine to work a certain number of hours or days on a specific project. Find an activist Buddhist buddy, and talk over your commitment with this person. Take action together, go to demonstrations together, register voters together. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by how many different things there are to do, but find something that suits your skills and interests. Practice mindfulness by listening to your heart: What calls you? Find the interface between what needs to be done and what you have to offer.
Write down a list of what you are going to do and sign it, with your buddy acting as notary public. After all, Buddhists are in the habit of making vows. Think of it as a practice period. Let it be a spiritual practice, and stick to it with a sense of discipline.
9. Bear Witness.
You have been given the gift of human form, so don’t just vow to save all sentient beings with your mouth; vow with your body. Buddha sat under a tree at the edge of his own neighborhood and faced an oncoming army. You can work up to this gradually.
Bearing witness is a good thing to do with your affinity group. For example, go on a peace walk together. The Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order organizes peace walks all over the world that focus on civil rights and peace issues (see www.dharmawalk.org). Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the Buddhist patriarch and activist known as the Gandhi of Cambodia, who is now in his eighties, leads a Dhammayietra, or peace walk, across Cambodia every year. He says, “Our journey for peace begins today and every day. Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge.”
10. Don’t Be Attached To Results. Persevere.
The law of karma tells us that beneficial actions produce beneficial results, so even though you may not see those results immediately (or ever), the work you do for peace and justice now will bear fruit at some point in the future. You aren’t in a position to judge the results of your actions, so maintain what Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn Sunim calls “don’t-know mind.” It’s a kind of hubris to want to know exactly what’s going on. If the results you are working for in the short term don’t come to pass, remember the long term. What will the beings not yet born say about us if we give up now? Peace is not the end but the means, and we are already practicing it. No doubt about it—this is a dark time, and vast corporations with their armies and their governments and their dogmas are crushing life all over the place. But the good news is that we’re not in this dark place alone, and a lot of people, including a lot of Buddhists, are getting off their duffs to change things for the better.
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