Filed in Politics

Accepting the Invitation

Charles Johnson suggests that we take to heart Benjamin Franklin’s challenge: “Democracy is an invitation to struggle.”Charles Johnson

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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.

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Nimrodscott's picture

This is just a small historical correction to one sentence in the original article:

"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."

The 3 civil rights workers were murdered for their work in Mississippi, not Alabama.

Other civil rights workers were murdered in Alabama... for details on civil rights martyrs see:

jackelope65's picture

Most of the people who I have found to deny global warming, if they actually read about it at all, are referring to opinion rather than science; 99% of scientists doing pure research, not funded by big oil, on global warming agree to its presence and negative significance, as with " Sandy meets the Northeaster." Therefore I do not really believe that all politicians actually believe their own pontifications. As citizens we must educate ourselves first with extensive reading, read fact checking, and then vote on which candidates are closer to the truth and may do the most good, although I do agree we will never truly understand all of the complexities of politics. In this lifetime, I may never read enough dharma, but that does not mean I should give up but remain true to my vows to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, continuing to do my best to make my practice significant. In these days we not only face great complexities but also have the best tools to seek the truth and make the best decisions.

jimgoldsworthy's picture

The greatest failures of the American experiment in human liberty derive from straying from the protection of the individual from the hatreds of mob rule. Slavery and Jim Crow needed the force of law to survive because individuals of different races that are free to exercise their right to peacefully assemble will enter business contracts, friendships and eventually marriages. Because of this racism is an inherently collectivist belief that requires society to enforce rules as to which members are allowed to associate with one another. My Buddhist outllook has led me to a libertarian political philosophy in that I may not agree with my neighbor's choices but if he refrains from imposing his will on me I will do the same for him. And I am more than willing to cooperate with my neighbors to work towards our individual and mutual self interest, but not to impose our beliefs on "proper" behavior on others.

sallyotter's picture

Some of my beliefs about "proper" behavior of self and others is not killing and not stealing. I do impose those beliefs on my neighbors. And of course, it gets complicated when they're "only" stealing from the government, but that's indirectly from us. And when I allow the government to take life using my tax dollars, whether it's through war or the death penalty, I'm morally responsible. The way I understand Buddhism is that all sentient beings are connected; what happens to you affects us all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism's best-kept secret is because all human beings are connected, as you change you cause changes in society.

celticpassage's picture

The problem with voting is that no one really knows what political or military solution will work or what to enact to reduce 'suffering'.

The size and complexity of administering modern societies like the US are astounding. Add to that that these complex societies are affected by other equally complex societes in complex ways from around the world and you have situations and complexities that are beyond an idividuals knowledge and comprehension.

I think that voting based on simplistic ideas like reducing suffering or any others of the eighfold path is of little use since it really isn't possible to tell what will accomplish those goals.

enronal's picture

I have misgivings about urging political action based on the eightfold path. Johnson says that social responsibility in a democratic republic “surely means voting for those initiatives that we believe will reduce suffering and violence, ignorance and hatred…” Of course. But virtually every political advocate believes he or she is promoting the greatest good. The argument is about how. Do you preserve peace by being conciliatory or by strengthening defenses? Would it reduce suffering to widen and deepen the safety net or to encourage autonomy and self-reliance? To raise taxes and benefits or lower them to promote jobs and growth? Johnson puts in the same phrase “preserving individual freedoms and the environment.” One of the central debates of politics stems from the trade-off between freedom and other goals. Should you be free to smoke if smoke bothers me? Should we combat ignorance by raising the age of compulsory education or encouraging means to gain practical experience? The republican party was formed because slavery was incompatible with freedom. The democratic party advocates constraints on freedom to promote greater equality and other goals. Which is right, or are they both right? Does the eightfold path really have an answer?

It’s a small step from political advocacy to partisanship. Pretending that the Eightfold path gives one special political insights is a dubious premise, I believe.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Dear ronalds:

You express the human dilemma so well. I admire your reluctance to commit to a fixed opinion at the same time as I appreciate Charles Johnson’s willingness to commit! The commitment and the lack of it both serve a purpose.

It seems that many people have a habit of speaking that claims more knowledge, certainty, and authority than they actually possess. I catch myself doing it all the time! And I often believe other people uncritically when they do it—at first.

Daily Buddhist practice helps me remember that MY LIFE DOES NOT HAVE TO revolve around trying to figure out which of any two political positions on any issue is somehow ultimately correct. Truthfully, I acknowledge my incapacity to do so—and I don’t trust anybody else’s ability to do this, either!

In the end, after evaluating the always-incomplete information available to me at the time, I follow my own heart. Because not saying and not doing anything hurts worse than the possibility of
being mistaken.

I do use Buddhist teachings to make political decisions, but I recognize that my interpretation is my own. If someone who considers themselves Buddhist makes a different choice, I do not think, “Well, then they aren’t really Buddhist,” or “Christian,” or whatever.

It’s so uninteresting to lack authority! We pay more attention to inflated opinions than to humble ones, perhaps because they excite more fear. Yet every now and then, the truth about how you and me and everybody else must take risks in the face of uncertainty—and then live with the resulting pain or joy—can be very refreshing.

enronal's picture

Tharpa, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

JPATTUR123's picture

New religions or philosophies have evolved based on dissatisfaction of the then existing religious beliefs of hatred and cruelty. Peaceful Buddhism and Jainism evolved out of violent Hinduism in India. Peaceful Sufism and Bahai faith evolved out of violent Christianity and Islam in the middle east. Gandhi and Martin Luther King evolved their peaceful protest out of violent Democracy based on Protestant ethics.
Currently people are marching to drum beat of hatred of the other, exactly the opposite of Buddha's teaching. It has never been this bad.
Where is the process of evolution leading us? Will "survival of the fittest" lead us to peaceful coexistance as the fittest or the destruction of the other?

enronal's picture

Actually, it has always been this bad, or worse. See, for example: WWII (genocide), WWI, Napoleonic wars, the 100 years' war (which were religious), the crusades, the (violent) spread of Islam. Evolution is a slow process and students of evolution say we are mentally and physically indistinguishable from humans 80,000 years ago. That's the problem--our evolution gives prominence to violent, aggressive impulses.

leaharlow's picture

Good question, melcher.

Dick OHearn's picture

I remember 1964 only too well. Of the three civil rights workers murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, only Chaney was black. Schwerner and Goodman were white, Jewish, and from New York.

melcher's picture

So, what's your point?

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's been noted that Pres. Obama downplayed himself during the first debate with Romney so as not to appear as an angry black man. That image scares and intimidates many white folks, sparking fearful backlash. You can imagine the atmosphere in the Jim Crow South 50 years ago. White people needed to see white people doing good works first before showing historically unprecedented sentiment and support.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I appreciate your post very much, Dominic.

I deeply admire President Obama for his initial restraint.

My parents were two of those white people in the South who stuck their necks out. The backlash for their advocacy of racial equality continues into my generation, though mostly through reliving it in my own mind. I experience terrifying flashbacks from my childhood and find myself projecting those terrors, mostly unnecessarily, onto current encounters and relationships.

Nevertheless, less than a week after the presidential election in 2008, a few miles to the north of where I live, the Ku Klux Klan murdered a white woman who defied them.

The greatest evidence I have seen of our common humanity is that the backlash I have experienced as an individual has come from both Americans of European descent and African-Americans. We all know hate. Let us admit it, embrace it, and let it go.

I choose to make this an observation of compassion for our common humanity rather than cause for bitterness toward anyone of any color, although this attitude has been a long time in coming.

May all of us who feel racial, political, religious, or other forms of hate experience the release from our resentment that I have experienced, the release that comes with humbly acknowledging my own capacity for hatred and vowing to do better in the future.