Charles Johnson suggests that we take to heart Benjamin Franklin’s challenge: “Democracy is an invitation to struggle.”
For a free people the franchise means everything. In a democratic republic, it is the proper name for empowerment. It is the essence of political equality. As the Rev. Joseph Carter put it in St. Francisville, Louisiana, in 1963, “A man is not a first-class citizen, a number one citizen, unless he is a voter.”
But for nonwhite Americans and women, exercising this constitutional right involved a long, painful struggle from the nation’s founding to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation, one of the primary goals of the Civil Rights movement, was achieved only after the agony of numerous campaigns sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to register eligible black voters throughout the South. There, blacks who tried to vote were savagely beaten. Or hanged. They faced economic reprisals. Their homes were burned, their families driven out of town. Whites dropped snakes on those who stood in line to register. They obstructed black voters with preposterous “literacy tests” (when many illiterate whites were registered) and state poll taxes that were not outlawed in federal elections until the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964. In a word, American blacks paid for the precious franchise with their lives, among them civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered for trying to register blacks in Alabama.
I’ve recited this grim, recent history because, as a Buddhist, I’ve long viewed the sphere of politics—and especially racial politics—to be the perfect illustration of samsara, or what the 2000-year-old sutra The Perfection of Wisdom calls kamadhatu: “the realm of desire,” characterized by dualism and the hunger for power. It is a highly competitive world of Them vs. Us, of “winners” and “losers,” where the Buddhist insight into “impermanence” is given concrete form as laws that may last only as long as the time between two elections. As one history teacher informed me when I was an undergraduate, one useful way to interpret any political document or piece of legislation is by first identifying in it the “screwer” and the “screwee,” who always seem present in political affairs.
But for all my aversion to the polarizing dimensions of politics, I cannot forget Benjamin Franklin’s haunting statement that, “Democracy is an invitation to struggle,” which in the context of dharma means struggle in the politicized realm of samsara that, paradoxically, is identical to nirvana—and doing so with the ironic understanding that, from an absolute standpoint, no one is struggling at all. And what does a Buddhist struggle for in the realm of relativity? The answer, I think, is twofold: to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings and turn the Wheel of Dharma, as Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks did so beautifully during the Vietnam War, coming to the aid of orphans, widows, and the wounded on both sides of the civil war that devastated their country. Buddhism and politics need not be antithetical, as demonstrated by legendary King Ashoka, a lay follower of Buddhism who ruled the Maurya kingdom in northern India from 272—236 B.C.E., and in his edicts embraced generosity, compassion, refraining from killing, love of truth, inner insight, and harmonious relations with neighboring states.
One way to read the injunction for Right Conduct, an essential part of the Eightfold Path, is to see it as calling us—as citizens—to translate the dharma into specific acts of social responsibility. In a democratic republic, that surely means voting for those initiatives that we believe will reduce suffering and violence, ignorance and hatred—and the very divisions fueled by politics itself. (Since the word for right in Sanskrit, samyak, is the same as for perfect, I prefer to call this “Perfect Conduct” because that avoids the dualism inherent in the word right, which inevitably conjures up its opposite, wrong.)
Thus, a Buddhist would not hesitate to vote for legislation and political candidates devoted to peace, to undoing injustice, reducing duhkha in its myriad manifestations, healing society’s wounds, preserving individual freedoms and the environment, as well as the rapidly vanishing forms of plant and animal life that are a part of it (and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “inter-being”). I do not feel that a Buddhist—whatever his or her tradition or lineage—must necessarily join a political party, for that often entails a blind allegiance that puts the party’s survival and “winning” elections ahead of the ethical behavior outlined in the Eightfold Path. Rather, one can remain an “independent,” supporting life-nurturing proposals and propositions wherever they arise, among Democrats or Republicans, the left or the right. (Once again, the samsaric language of a two-party political system plunges us into dualism!
And yet, having just presented my arguments for why Buddhists should vote, I’m reminded of Dr. King’s warning that only the spiritual life can lead to his goal of the “beloved community.” “Racial justice . . .,” he wrote, “will come neither by our frail and often misguided efforts nor by God imposing his will on wayward men, but when enough people open their lives to God to allow Him to pour his triumphant, divine energy into their souls.” In Buddhist terms, we must vote and use the means of the relative-phenomenal world to reduce suffering, for we are part of the relative-phenomenal world. But suffering will continue, despite our best efforts, until all of us experience—like Shakyamuni Buddha—enlightenment and liberation.
Charles Johnson received the 1990 National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage. He has authored three other novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous essays, screenplays, critical books, and reviews. Johnson, a 1998 MacArthur Fellow, hold the University of Washington's first endowed chair in writing.