November 06, 2012

Buddhists Aim to Bring Mindfulness to the Ballot Box

Daniel Burke

(RNS) The mindfulness movement has seeped into Silicon Valley, Capitol Hill, and even the United States Military Academy at West Point. Next stop: the voting booth.

A new California-based group wants the estimated 5 million Americans who practice mindfulness to move off their meditation cushions and into the polls on Tuesday (Nov. 6). 

If meditation can calm hyperactive kids, ease the pain of drug addicts and tame the egos of Fortune 500 CEOs, it can surely help a stressed-out and polarized country choose a president, says the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams.

An artist and veteran activist from Berkeley, Williams is the force behind MindfulVOTES, a nonpartisan campaign that she believes is the first attempt to mobilize mindfulness meditators.

“Mindfulness practices are maturing in our country and entering the mainstream, but if it’s not applied in our lives, it doesn’t matter,” said Williams. “It’s time for our community to go beyond its own navels.”

Broadly defined, mindfulness is a meditative practice designed to encourage a clear and nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, often by observing one's breath. In Buddhism, mindfulness is one of the seven factors of enlightenment and a step on the Noble Eightfold Path.

But organizing meditators -- especially its leading Buddhist teachers -- has proven more difficult than expected, Williams said. “You know the phrase ‘like herding cats’? This is like herding lions and tigers,” she said with a laugh.

Hoping to leverage attention during an election year, the group raised funds to attend the Democratic and GOP conventions this summer. It followed the leads of the liberal group and the League of Women Voters by encouraging activists to host “mindful circles” and circulate an online voting pledge. MindfulVOTES also solicited the services of 250 “mindful” leaders and tapped 20 A-list ambassadors, including Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio congressman who practices mindfulness meditation.

“We will demonstrate that the Mindful community is a block of conscious voters, engaging in politics in a new and impactful way,” the group says.

Williams, who defines herself as “post-Zen” and practices at the newDharma Community in Berkeley, said MindfulVOTES hopes to attract diverse strands of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian and nontheistic meditators. According to researchers, more than 1 million Americans take up meditation each year.

But Williams said that only a small number of mindful circles have organized thus far, and the pledge-to-vote campaign faltered. "We're learning as we go along," she said. "This is a huge exercise in getting our feet wet." 

There is no central Buddhist hierarchy or organization in the U.S. Instead, dozens of groups dot the landscape, from Japanese-American devotees of Amida Buddha to Tibetan refugees to Zen converts. Many Buddhist clergy are part time and spend their few free hours building their own institutions, Williams said.

Still, Buddhist ethics and philosophy contain clear moral mandates, including the need to take political responsibility, said the Rev. Danny Fisher, a leading young Buddhist activist.

“Mindfulness, wisdom and ethical action are like three legs of a stool,” said Fisher, a professor and coordinator of the Buddhist chaplaincy department at University of the West in Rosemead, Calif. “Buddhists in North America tend to focus on the first leg. Thinking about ethical issues, our role in the larger world, and the direction of the country is often less pronounced.”

Fisher laments that American Buddhists lack firebrand figures like the late Protestant peace activist William Sloane Coffin or Cornel West, the provocative public philosopher. Instead, Fisher said he often looks to politically active Buddhists in Thailand and Burma for inspiration.

In some Asian countries, Buddhist groups have developed deep ties to political parties. Soka Gakkai International, for instance, founded its own party in Japan the 1960s and maintains strong connections to the New Komeito Party. SGI-USA spokesman William Aiken said he doubts that such alliances would develop in the United States.

“In the American Soka Gakkai Buddhist community, we feel that to identify with one partisan political philosophy over another would limit our mission to support the Buddhist practice of a very diverse membership,” he said.

Still, there are scores of politically engaged Buddhists in the United States - even if they don't publicly identify their religion, said Aiken and other Buddhist leaders. 

And while they remain small, there are a number of Buddhist political groups in the U.S. The Berkeley-based Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for example, was founded in 1978 by the late Robert Aitken Roshi, an American Zen leader.

In January, the Berkeley-based group will embark on a new campaign to encourage young Buddhists to connect their meditation practice and religious studies with “active nonviolence,” said Katie Loncke, BPF’s director of media and action. Just as important, it will connect politically active Buddhists with each other. “Many of us are out there looking," she said,"and not knowing how to find each other.”

Loncke said she is encouraged by the MindfulVOTES campaign, but also thinks Buddhists should address the root causes of suffering and societal injustice. 

“Buddhism tends to get fuzzed into this kind of magical thinking -- that if you’re mindful and you vote, then everything will get better,” Loncke said. “But that shortcuts political education.”

For Williams, the goal of MindfulVOTES this year is more immediate. 

"We want people to take a breath," she said, "and realize that there is such as thing as Nov. 7."

—Daniel Burke

Images: Rep. Tim Ryan; Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams; Robert Aitken Roshi.

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Will.Rowe's picture

I am disgusted by the election. Despite the terrible economic failure of Obama, a slight majority voted for the socialist president who attempted with partial success the government takeover of our private healthcare (1/5 of our economy). Obama has brought us 8-10% unemployment (until it magically dropped below the magic 7.8% in time for the election), over $1 trillion in deficit spending per year (President Bush never spent even 1/2 that amt annually with 9/11 and 2 wars), $6 trillion out of the $16 trillion debt, loss of US S&P AAA credit rating due to overspending (Murphy will likely do the same so that the $16 trillion debt will cost us higher interest rates). Obama bailed out big business and now wants to raise taxes to pay for this. And the youth who voted for Obama will be most betrayed since they will be the ones paying higher and higher taxes and working even more years to pay the debt down.
Obama is head of the executive branch, yet he has stated he will not do his job and enforce illegal immigration. He refuses to fire AG Holder, despite his lying to Congress over the failed gun control scheme Fast and Furious that allowed guns into Mexicans Drug cartels and gangster's hands. Obama and his Head of State Clinton blamed a video no one had seen in the US even and had been out since June for an attack upon our embassy in Libya on 9/11. Instead of outrage and demands of justice for the 4 dead Americans by the Muslim terrorists, Obama spent millions apologizing to Muslims for the video.
Obama does not represent me. He has stated as much since I cling to my guns and religion, in bitterness according to him. I do not know how anyone who loves America could vote for him. Socialists, those who enjoy killing babies with abortion, those who vote according to one’s race, and environmentalists believing in the theory of man-made global warming all would vote for Obama, yet these are in the minority. Regardless, all Americans will continue to suffer even more in the next 4 years as in the past term.

simonemaleschewski's picture

Obama inherited an economic disaster brought on by the reckless legislation of the Republican party and criminal activity by the financial sector. He has been attempting to bring the American and global economies back from the edge of total collapse and doing a fine job of it in spite of the efforts of a Republican dominated Congress to stop him. "Predator Nation" is a good read on the topic. It's also a movie.

celticpassage's picture

I hope there aren't many who hold your views. But somehow, I suspect there are. Which, to me, means there are a lot of scary Americans.

Dominic Gomez's picture

CONGRATULATIONS, AMERICA! We've just changed a little bit more of our karma tonight!