September 23, 2008

Voting Buddhist?

Monk and main altar, with 9-11 side altar, at the Cambodian Buddhist Association of Richmond

As the American and Canadian elections approach, there's been much discussion among North American Buddhists over how Buddhism relates to politics.  Among many converts to Buddhism, at least those willing to speak publicly on the matter, there's a near unanimity that Buddhists must vote for Barack Obama because he is the only candidate whose views and policies align with good Dharma.  The current issue of Shambhala Sun has an article extolling the revolutionary presence of Obama on the Democratic ticket, and while it doesn't explicitly endorse him, the overwhelmingly positive way in which he is discussed leaves little doubt as to where the author's and editors' sympathies lie.  Likewise, here on the Tricycle Editors' Blog, a recent post urging people to vote was signed only by convert white Buddhists, and while it too doesn't explicitly endorse Obama, the lefty Sutra quote and general tenor of the post make it easy to read between the lines.  Meanwhile, in countless discussions online and off, North American convert Buddhists have been considerably less demure than the big English-language Buddhist magazines.

But there's a danger in assuming that Buddhism and left-wing politics inherently go together, and that Buddhists ought to vote for liberals because they're Buddhist.  Historically speaking, Buddhism has tended to support conservative status quo regimes in Asia, going all the way back to India.  In the contemporary world, virtually all of the democratic countries with a significant Buddhist population are currently ruled by right-wing political groups.

Here in North America, there are large numbers of registered Republican Buddhists.  Many of them are Asian-Americans, immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who fled left-wing violence in their native countries.  One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans.  Anti-Communism drives many such Buddhists into the Republican Party, as does similar views on traditional values, economic policy, patriotism, and other issues.

One of the greatest disconnects with the Democrats is over abortion, which the Democratic Party supports and the Republican Party opposes.  The belief that life begins at conception is nearly universal across Buddhist Asia, and the overwhelming majority of Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests believe abortion to be a violation of the first precept.  This has led many Buddhist leaders in Asian-American communities to endorse Republican candidates.  At the same time, we have to be careful about stereotyping Asian-American Buddhism, a diverse phenomenon that also includes many Democrats and other liberals.

When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one.  Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic.  Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.

Even within this demographic of convert Buddhism, there is reason to think that there are significant numbers of right-wing Buddhists who largely remain quiet about their views, perhaps from a feeling that they are actively silenced by the strident voices of their left-wing fellow practitioners.  We can see evidence of this in the Pew Forum's recent U.S. Religious Landscape survey.  The survey is flawed, but one area it does manage to capture fairly well are precisely these convert Buddhists, who if anything are over-represented in the survey sample.  Even in this survey that skews in some ways toward the more liberal end of American Buddhism, we find that 18% of Buddhists are Republican in orientation and 44% consider themselves moderates or conservatives, not liberals.  18% is about one out of five, yet the proportion of English-language Buddhist blogs, magazines, and newsletters that express support for Republican candidates is clearly far lower than this.  This should suggest that Republican convert Buddhists, a sizable minority, either do not have equal access to media to express their views, or feel intimidated into not making such expressions.  The lack of a reasonable argument for Republican Buddhism, therefore, may not be because there is no such argument, but because liberal Buddhists create an environment wherein such sentiments are difficult to express.

North American Buddhism is already seriously divided along lines of race and approach to practice, even though there are also some people and groups who manage to partially bridge these gaps.  The political season helps to reveal another, less acknowledged divide between those who see Buddhism as naturally, self-evidently liberal, and the large but less vocal contingent of moderate and conservative Buddhists in our midst.  This is by no means meant to suggest that liberal Buddhists shouldn't vote for Democratic (or even more progressive) candidates, or that Buddhist values can't be legitimately used to support a liberal political agenda.  I've already voted--for Barack Obama--via absentee ballot.  But in the rush to annoint him as the logical Buddhist candidate, let's try to remain mindful of the fact that Buddhism is a lot larger and more diverse than our own particular (usually almost completely monochromatic and politically monolithic) sanghas, and that whatever side we come down on, there are a significant number of sincere, committed, thoughtful Buddhists who reach political opinions nearly opposite of our own.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Shambhala SunSpace » Nielsen Ratings, the U.S. Religious Lan's picture

[...] also be a microcosm of sorts. Indeed, as my friend, the great Buddhist scholar Jeff Wilson, has noted: Here in North America, there are large numbers of registered Republican Buddhists. Many of them [...]

klrje's picture

ugg for cheap,

Gerald Ford's picture

Konchog: We're not all living under the rule of or were massacred by Josef Stalin. Just a reminder.

If you can't learn to forgive the other side, or at least see them as human beings (albeit deluded ones) well, that's your problem. :)

Blogs » Vietnamese language: Information from's picture

[...] Voting Buddhist?One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans. Anti-Communism drives many such Buddhists into the Republican … [...]

josho_adrian's picture

I couldn't believe my eyes when seeing that picture with the Buddhist monk in charge of that center, making publicity to George Bush. If he put that picture in his own room, this is ok, but to make publicity to a politician near the altar of the Buddhist center, this I can't agree.

josho_adrian's picture

I don't know how people are doing things in America, or in american temples or dojos, but in the Buddhist center I lead, I do not allow any political discussion. Nobody is allowed to express his or her political opinions in the dojo. I also consider dangerous to involve in what is the best Buddhist political approach or publicly encourage somebody to vote for this or that politician. Everybody should decide for himself.
People are different and discussing politics in a Buddhist center may create conflicts.
At a Buddhist center, only the Dharma should be discussed and then everybody decides how he applies his Dharma understanding in his daily life, even in the matter of voting.

To me is surprising to saw a lot of political discussions on many Buddhist blogs or websites.

Blogs » 21/9/08 - BLOG 74: YES THEY ARE OUT OF ORDER - OH WE's picture

[...] Voting Buddhist?One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans. Anti-Communism drives many such Buddhists into the Republican … [...]

darin's picture

Great thread... very timely .
I'll quote Lama Sumati Marut on Bhuddism and politics
" So how to walk the political tightrope without falling into the abyss of anger towards and estrangement from those we oppose? With Gandhi and a very few others we are presented with paragons of how to be both politically engaged while maintaining our spiritual principles. The same secret for the harmonization of these apparently contradictory enterprises was taught by all of them.
The secret is to love your “enemy,” your political “opponent.” The secret is to realize that those you disagree with are not, fundamentally, different from you.
So as the election nears, if you think you can involve yourself in politics in the same manner as Jesus, Gandhi, King, and the Dalai Lama, then by all means “be political.” The “you” then, of course, will not think it is affiliated with one side versus another, but will rather be identified with all sides, with all beings. "

Simple but cuts to the quick :). This is from his latest blog

but he also has a bunch of awesome teachings at

thanks for the enlightening comments!

Konchog's picture

"Isn’t that what Buddhists are supposed to do? Appreciate the backgrounds and beliefs of others?"

I dunno. Living in Mongolia, and seeing firsthand the results of the wholesale demolition and massacre that was wrought upon the Mongolians' Buddhist culture following the rise of Soviet-style Communism in the 1930's and beyond, I find I don't find I have much appreciation for the background and beliefs of Josef Stalin. Just as an example.

tinythinker's picture

Interesting question - is it?

Doug, a.k.a. "Gerald Ford"'s picture

P.S. Speaking of Asian Buddhists who vote conservative, my father-in-law whose in Japan likes Bush much better than Clinton because of his strong stance toward North Korea (who likes to shoot missles over Japan among other nasty deeds). He's a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth fellow, so I consider his viewpoint very valuable, and I don't dismiss it lightly. I may disagree with him on some points, but I also think it's important to appreciate his view as well.

Isn't that what Buddhists are supposed to do? Appreciate the backgrounds and beliefs of others?

Doug, a.k.a. "Gerald Ford"'s picture

Yeah, in my younger days as a Buddhist and liberal, I definitely took the staunch-left approach to things as many American convert Buddhists do, but now that I am a father and little older/wiser, I have a more "grey" view of the world. On the one hand, I consider myself a fiscal conservative and distrust bureaucracy, so I would vote Republican in that regard, but on the other hand, I tend to view international politics in a more liberal, less nationalistic approach, so I would vote Democrat in that regard.

It's too easy to limit yourself to one viewpoint, when the Buddha describe strong viewpoints as "distortions" (see texts in the Majjhima Nikaya for more info). Better to let go of your own notions and think the problem, or the election, carefully and decide who the best man/woman is.

arunlikhati's picture

This is a great post with (I feel) right on observations. Thank you, Jeff :)

Konchog's picture

One thought to add is that no American center can legally endorse any particular candidate if they have 501(c)3 non-profit status. Why I leave politics off my blog, for the most part. As a voting Buddhist, I consider which political entity is likely to cause the lesser amount of suffering, domestically and internationally. And, well...I usually don't have to ponder long.

Dave's picture

Good points. Part of the issue may also involve how fuzzy our semantics are, with ideas like conservative or liberal holding a broad array of meanings that can shift from demographic to demographic or person to person. It might be interesting to see a comparison of how conservatives define Buddhist values compared to those who identify as progressive. I suspect the primary differences would be more along cultural divides (on the larger scale, i.e. Eastern/Western) than along partisan lines.