From a Buddhist view we are all ego addicts, in service of our own special interests. The good news is that liberation already resides within us, but to help prime the pump of awakening, we must leave behind our “possessions”—not in terms of what we literally own, but rather in terms of what owns us: those limiting, habitual patterns that diminish and dull our lives.

As the presidential campaign heats up, and as the political rhetoric gets increasingly nasty, I find myself spending more time watching TV news than usual. One compelling aspect of this so-called democratic process is the revelation of an enormous national ego at work, an overblown, magnified mirror of our individual selves. Unlike Avalokiteshvara (see this issue’s “On Practice” section)—often depicted with 100,000 arms and eyes so that she may fully respond to the suffering of the world—the collective ego functions like a 100,000-armed octopus paralyzed by self-entanglements. The possibility of an enlightened society recedes farther in the face of the obstacles encountered by even the most devoted disciples of ego-killing practices. 

Once I was assigned to work with a Zen nun on a project that required using her computer program. She had given up her clothes, her hair, her professional job at a prestigious scientific institute, her apartment, her privacy, her salary, and her savings in order to spend her days studying and helping to administrate a Zen center. She owned virtually nothing. The computer at which we were assigned to work was owned by the center. As we sat down together, there was a sudden ado, and the next thing I knew, the woman was in the office of the chief administrator, in tears. She had worked hard to tailor this particular program to her work and it seems that she did not wish to share it.

At one Zen center with which I was affiliated, we played a game called “What’s Your Line?” For the nun, who had in fact sacrificed a great deal, a computer program was the line that she couldn’t cross. But who among us is so emptied of attachments that they have nothing left to lose? Imagine being able to say of a thief, as Zen poet Ryokan did one evening on discovering that his hermitage had been vandalized, “I only wish I could have given him the moon.”

When Buddhist concepts are applied to the political arena the position of having nothing to lose emerges not only as an efficacious platform, but as moral pragmatism. In fact, having nothing to lose may be the only moral position from which any good may be gained. Just consider that paradox against the current situation: Proctor and Gamble just won approval from the FDA to market the new no-fat fat, Olestra; the side effects of “gastrointestinal distress,” including one peculiarity discretely referred to as “anal leakage,” did not deter the megabuck conglomerate from lobbying the government; the cigarette industry has been paying the government, in the form of taxes, for the privilege of killing its citizens; while the National Rifle Association fills the coffers of lawmakers for the right of citizens to kill each other. No wonder that impotent voices define America as a country controlled for, by, and of special interest groups. Having something “special” to protect, i.e. their own interests, means that they have something to lose, thereby disqualifying them from serving the public good.

Imagine a candidate who has nothing to lose: a person willing to risk defeat, dislike, public humility, historical obscurity. Imagine a candidate who wishes to give us the moon, free of charge. Given the story of the nun, an enlightened candidate may seem unthinkable. But so what? To imagine a society in which the public interest actually matters approaches the same illogical wisdom-truth as the Buddhist vows to save all sentient beings, to end all delusions, and to attain the Buddha way.