Whenever we've gone political, a good number of our readers have gone ballistic. Letters pour in exhorting us to stay above the fray. Politics, some would have us think, is off-limits to Buddhists. Just the same, when West Coast Editor Anne Cushman proposed a special section on politics this election year, I braced myself for blowback and gave her the green light. And why not? Electoral politics, fraught with partisanship and dissent, are as much an opportunity to cultivate wisdom and compassion as any other aspect of life in the West - maybe even more so. After all, how many of us keep our heads in discussions about the upcoming elections? How many of us can bring our practice into our political lives, deepening our values rather than abandoning them at the slightest provocation from the opposition?
In “The Lotus and the Ballot Box”, the section’s opening essay, contributing editor Katy Butler tells us just how tough a challenge politics can be to our practice - and how rewarding, too. Emerging from her shell of solitary practice to join the Dean campaign, Butler discovers an attachment to view that she finally learns to let go of, responding to defeat in Iowa with a hope and openness that are the hard-earned fruits of a dedicated Zen practice. Through the ups and downs that go with campaign territory, Butler holds her own, coming out of the experience changed for the better.
Along with a mix of inspirational tales, Cushman had the practical foresight to include articles and essays that not only outline a case for engagement but also lay out a plan of action. Susan Moon offers “Ten Practices to Change the World”, while Diana Winston gives us “Seven Reasons Why It’s Better Not to Hate Them”—the opposition, that is. Donald Rothberg tells us how to navigate the labyrinth of contemporary politics without losing our minds, and, in an interview, Dennis Kucinich explains why his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination was still worthwhile.
As one might expect, the section reflects the liberal bias of the convert Buddhist community (see Wes Nisker’s “Confessions of a Bush-Bashing Buddhist,”), and we expect to hear about that shortly from those readers whose political biases differ. But one piece points to another view, and it falls hard on the heels of Nisker’s. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda, in “The Problem of Politics”, speaks of the inherent pitfalls of mixing Buddhism with politics: “The basis of religion is morality, purity, and faith,” he writes, “while that of politics is power.” Although Sri Dhammananda does not oppose political engagement for the laity (monastics are another matter), he admonishes us not to expect from politics what we might from spiritual practice: “To the Buddhist,” he writes, “nowhere in samsara is there real freedom,” and “no political system. . .can bring about peace and happiness as long as the people in the system are dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion.”
In so many ways, for the convert community, the beginnings of Buddhism in the West meant a turning away from an externally focused world; early practitioners began an inward search in a hyper-materialistic society they eschewed. With this issue we mark the passing of one such early student and one of Western Buddhism’s giants, Philip Kapleau Roshi. Following his exposure to the horrors of the Second World War (he served as a court reporter for the war crimes trials in Japan and Germany), Kapleau found readjustment to civilian life difficult, and eventually devoted his life to Zen practice. He founded the Rochester Zen Center in upstate New York, hoping the region’s notoriously inclement weather would “push his students inward.” Now, decades later, by the end of Kapleau’s life, many Buddhist communities have once again begun to reach out to engage with the world, as amply evidenced in this issue. But this, it turns out, is entirely consistent with Kapleau Roshi’s teachings. When asked if he believed that Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, actually existed, Kapleau responded, “To meet her face to face, all you have to do is perform a selfless deed.” In this divisive election year, let’s hope we can keep his advice in mind.