Ten Practices to Change the World

Get off your cushion and get involved

Susan Moon

Wisdom Collection

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1. Vote

If Buddha had added a ninth practice to the Eightfold Path, it might have been Right Voting. Voting is a manifestation of the law of interdependence: Each of our actions, no matter how small, affects the whole cosmos. Our votes count. True, more people voted for Gore than Bush in 2000, but a great many people did vote for Bush, and if just a handful more had voted for Gore, history would have unfolded differently. The law of karma is operative. There are many causes and conditions that get a person a job in the Oval Office—or the mayor's office, or the office of the superintendent of schools—but your voting is a big one.

When I am in my local polling place in the neighborhood senior center, I think of voting as part of the practice of Right Speech. I have considered the issues and made a choice, and now I am joining with the whole electorate to exercise my hard-won right to speak my mind. For me, to throw away my right to vote would be an example of wrong speech—of failing to speak up when speaking up could matter to the well-being of others.

Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says that voting was a religious act in her family when she was growing up. We can sanctify voting within our circle of family and friends, gathering all of the information and sitting down to study it together, discussing issues and making our best decision. Consider taking a child or teenager with you to the polls, to show him or her that voting is a privilege, a duty, and something to do from a deep place of respect and thoughtfulness. As Buddhist writer and activist Melody Chavis says, "If Dharma Gates are really boundless, the door to the voting booth is one of them."

2. Do the Nitty-gritty Work of Supporting Democratic Elections
As Buddhists, we take up the work of the community. We weed the garden, we wash the dishes. Dan Ellsberg (the peace activist best known for giving the top-secret Pentagon papers to the press) says, "Don't be afraid to do what seems trivial or humble. Don't think: This is a job for somebody else who isn't as busy as I am. "

One way to take up the work of the community is by registering voters. When we register people to vote, especially in neighborhoods where registration is low, we are literally spreading democracy and giving people a bit more power. Many people have absorbed cynicism and hopelessness from the media: a feeling that nothing will change no matter what they do, or that all of the candidates are alike and will do nothing to help ordinary people's lives. On every ballot are at least some issues that are immediately relevant to everyone—public transportation, schools, public health, prisons—but often, most people have not heard of these issues. Registering people to vote and talking with them one-on-one about issues is a kind of dharma teaching because it shows people how we all have some measure of responsibility for Out world and an opportunity to participate in making decisions.

At the present time, it is particularly important to register voters in the sixteen states in which the projected vote in the presidential election is uncertain. Anyone of these states could determine who is our next president: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. If you don't already live in a swing state, plan a vacation or visit friends and family in one of the swing states. Go to www.drivingvotes.org for excellent information about how to help with voter registration in these states.

Sign up to be an election monitor and work for clean elections. See Public Campaign's website: www.publicampaign.org. Volunteer to help out with the campaign of a candidate you support. And beyond the election, work for a cause that speaks to your deepest values: welfare rights, abolition of the death penalty, music in the schools...

3. Give Money.
Dana, or generosity, is an essential Buddhist practice, and the first of the paramitas, or practices of perfection. Giving is the antidote to greed, which is the cause of much of our suffering. By giving generously to the candidate or cause of your choice, you are training yourself to overcome clinging, thereby cultivating joy, now and in the future. And when you practice giving, you will be creating good karma for yourself. What you give comes back to you. What did you come to this earth to do, anyway? To hoard money in a bank account, or to awaken to the full possibilities of your human life? We tend to think money is dirty, but if you have money to give, any money at all, you have an opportunity to express your Buddha-nature. Holding on tight to your money is what gets it a little tarnished.

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mfwilsonelm's picture

In 2013,when elected officials can take food away from those who do not have the means to buy it,it seems to me that compassion would indicate we should do something to change that fact.

johnmcclaf's picture

Ms. Moon should try a little harder for non judgement of Republican or Democratic parties.
The reference that Gore had more votes than Bush exposes a bias that casts a shadow over the article.
There is no mention of qualifications other than the religious experience of her own voting process. Most Americans are too ill informed to vote on the expenditure of vast sums and the world wide intrusion into the affairs of other nations.
The race to the bottom is almost complete when it comes to voter qualifications. Literacy has long been removed front the requirement list.
The urge to register voters should be tempered and replaced by educating them or establishing some standard for the franchise. My barber had to go through much more to open his shop than I did to decide policy through representatives that would decide war and peace.
This democratic experiment will fail unless we demand a more of the mobs in the booth.

Joanofwhitestone's picture

With all due respect, stating a fact is not bias.

melcher's picture

Participating in one's community, including it's governance, is a point well taken. However, the danger of conflating spiritual practice with any particular political stance is made evident in the comments below. In the world of "left" versus "right" we all have a tendency to abandon awareness (or even thinking) and instead begin repeating sound bites from whatever media channel that appeals to our individual inventory of emotional sympathies. This takes us down a notch in terms of achieving clarity with ourselves and others. Social activism is a discipline that benefits from our practice as does any discipline. Practice is NOT politics.

jimgoldsworthy's picture

Again we look at democracy not as a means to secure freedom but as an end in itself. This country was founded as a representative republic to protect and foster freedom, and the founders spoke at length of the danger that a true democracy would lead to a tyranny of the majority and inevitably to an individual tyrant. So if we are to keep our liberty we need to remember Tip O'Neil's obsevation that all politics are local.We need to talk to our neighbors about local problems and find solutions that fit the conditions around our family and friends.
Don't just vote; run for school board, hospital board, city council, county commissioner. And be jealous of your power concerning your state and national government. Buddhism is about not just cosmic conection but also human, and the human you need to be concerned with first is not over the internet or phone line but over the backyard fence.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I would like to share today my always evolving views.

I observe that political issues generate a lot of discussion here on the Tricycle blog. I find myself sometimes drawn to them and sometimes repulsed by them. It seems to depend on what I’m more in need of at that moment—the comfort of harmony or the challenge of working with human conflict. I look to my Buddhist spiritual path to supply me with both kinds of opportunity.

My spiritual path bids me, when I feel strong enough, to seek ways to reduce our common human suffering. I learn to do that not only by seeking refuge at times, but also by moving towards conflict and working with it, rather than running away and hiding from it.

Today I thank Tricycle for providing me with opportunities to do both. Tomorrow I may be sorrowful that more words are not being devoted to soothing my battle wounds.

I accept this as reality.

Compassion to all readers and writers, Tharpa Pema

wtompepper's picture

I certainly wouldn't assume that the economic policies of the USA do not have any influence on the rest of the world. I would assume that the election has less effect on these policies than those in the rest of the world sometimes think they do. There may be some difference in which country we bomb or invade, or which region of the world we focus our economic imperialism on, but the president, and congress, probably affects that much less than the vicissitudes of global capitalism.

Marfa_Danilovna's picture

I've read carefully all the posts here and have found they all - all of them - have something in common: the idea that American politics concern only the USA. As if, say, chosing one presidential candidate over the other would have consequences only at a home level. Both Dependent origination and a bit of knowledge of history show that this is hardly the case.
Probably because I was born and live outside the United States, this idea/attitude makes me feel quite uncomfortable to the point of seeing it as, well, un-Buddhist (in my absolute-beginner's way of understanding Buddhism).

P.S. Apologies if my English reads strange or plain wrong at times.

sschroll's picture

I have no doubt things will get much worse for the middle and working class if Mitt Romney wins.
Some times the only possibility is to opt for the least of the evils......and it might be a good option........unless you are fine giving a free road to the Tea Party.

Yes, this is a Buddhist site, but we are still responsible for the consequences of our actions and choices, even in politics.

wtompepper's picture

I agree with the position already advanced in several comments that it is terribly naive to think that our votes are so important. To succeed in politics, it is necessary to become completely cynical, corrupt, and dishonest--there is no "right" way to vote in this situation. It would at least be more honest if we simply put on the ballot the names of the corporations and interest groups that "own" a particular politician, so at least we would know what we are really voting for. Walmart for Senate! Conagra for congress!

One the other hand, it remains puzzling to me why so many people still see Buddhism as inherently apolitical. It has never been so in any other country in its 2600-year history; why do Americans think we have the only "true" Buddhism, and it is to be found only in a radical divorce of spirituality from real life? It is clear from the Pali canon that Buddha was very engaged in the politics of his time (and no, he wasn't really a prince--that myth comes in much later). Was Buddha himself, then, a bad Buddhist, because he thought that it was in fact important to take a position on political issues?

dlee494's picture

I'm very aware of the thoughts and feelings of fear and anger arising in me as I began to read this article. I never got past the first page. I have no interest in voting for corrupt people to run the state I live in, or the country I live in. IF there appears to be someone with true character and integrity running for office, I'll be the first in line to vote! I have never, nor do I plan to ever give ANYMORE of my hard earned money to corrupt individuals. I'll continue giving to the charities I trust spend that money wisely and honestly. Telling myself to breathe, continue noticing.....and let go. Drats, I just came home from a stressful day at work, I guess more is an opportunity to WAKE UP. :))

foggedin's picture

Nicely said

wanwaimeng's picture

Right voting will fall under Right Action :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Right voting/action: Few countries have such freedom for individuals. We are so goddamn spoiled and un-mindful of it.

hmrosen's picture

Payton 275 said it all. Namaste

Dominic Gomez's picture

To paraphrase a slogan from the women's liberation movement, the spiritual is political. American political activism is informed by a myriad of populist concerns. Those of the various religions are comparitively small but influential, as we see from references to them by both major parties' candidates. Buddhism's primary concern is each individual's happiness and human dignity. When these are disregarded or abused through authoritarian governance (as has happened in Buddhist history) the onus lies with its practitioners to take action.

foggedin's picture

Predictable underlying assumption that implies being Buddhist requires being politically progressive/liberal. Moist, yet compassionate, raspberries to that. Still, your point about involvement in the affairs of the world is well taken.

payton275's picture

I find this article naive. It assumes that there is actually a difference between candidates. Until there is election reform there will be no real choice. Also I don't believe this site is the place for this discussion. I don't come here for this.

ZenIrishChai's picture

I read this article today based on a reference to it in a recent email. I thought the excerpt came at a perfect time for me in dealing with a disability; "Protect yourself and your mind from too much negativity. Not turning away from suffering doesn't mean wallowing in the horror of it all." It's a great reminder about how to follow the Middle Way and not fall in to one extreme or another.

I also think the Eightfold Path effectively covers the idea and the proper response to politics completely as it is. I think it is being misrepresented or misunderstood in this case, to suggest that a ninth practice might even be 'right voting'. The article introduces some great ideas and suggestions beyond that, but it really started off on the wrong foot with that introduction.

Of course this is a different age we live in compared to the time and life of the Buddha, but I have to believe if there was any use for politics in our practice, he would've easily seen it based on his experiences as a prince and king, and taken action to invoke his right to rule his lands however he saw fit instead of leaving that life to find a better way. I believe there was no 'ninth' practice on the Eightfold path for good reason.

Personally, I imagine the Buddha might have suggested to play the part we are given within our community to exercise our right and responsibility to vote, but to not be taken up in the storm of decisions, arguments, and the aftermath that might be a part of it for some people. I think this perspective is in line with many of the ideas in this article. This also feels in line with how the Dalai Lama has always handled the issue with his exile from Tibet due to China's politics. He doesn't become the Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher camp of political activism on one side or the other about popular topics, but he does stay firm on what he hopes will happen and what he thinks the compassionate reaction is on a case by case basis. Essentially, I see him continuing to speak about it when the time is appropriate, not wanting to incite unnecessary violence or argument. Sometimes it's unavoidable when his followers believe a more aggressive response is necessary, but he certainly hasn't condoned that and clearly wishes for a peaceful resolution more than anything.

Regardless of the outcome or final decision of a country's majority vote, I think the best part we can play is to be aware of our own reaction and influence, to instill peace and thoughtful reflection in the middle of any duality or extreme that can be counter productive. It's important to speak our opinion, but not to the point of creating confrontational perspective where compromise or alternative solutions should be discussed in it's place to be most effective. We can't attach ourselves so firmly to an idea that our voice becomes irrelevant once a majority vote is made against our preference.

I would very much like to see more responses from the community to explore these issues, as I'm sure this article will get new attention based on the recent email referring to it. I know some might prefer to keep politics out of our practice and this website, but how we react to the topic is still very applicable to all of us without taking any sides. Instead of arguing over which side should get our vote, we really should be talking about the nature of our reaction to the topic in general, how we can be more effective to influence progress without polarizing ourselves, and keep away from damaging the effectiveness of our voice because we are too attached or passionate about our opinions. In fact, I can't think of anything more relevant to the teachings than understanding how we can approach these things in the way of the Buddha so that politics and any other topic relevant to our lives does not cause further discord between ourselves and anyone else. Thank you Susan Moon and Tricycle for bringing up a great topic and it's relation to our practice!

sallyotter's picture

Oh, my! Fascinating. I'm a householder, not a monk. I live in the world. I am Buddhist and live by the precepts. Hopefully, they infuse every thought and action. My neighborhood, community, country, and world are my sangha. I have a responsibility, Lovin-kindness and Compassion dictate. I choose my involvement based on those principles. So registering voters is an act of loving-kindness, imparting hope and dignity. Some of my heroes are Gandhi and MLK. Peaceful, not resistance, but growth. Thanks for the thoughts.

jsmith206@roadrunner.com's picture

I should not be surprised at the responses to the article. As always seems to happen in such forums, especially non-Buddhist, people revert to arguing and posturing. As with much of what is available for us to read in the media,there are often a few grains of truth to ponder.
I think this article was certainly thought provoking. As a naturalized citizen I feel strongly about using our vote. I fear we will lose more of those rights which have made this country what it was if we continue to have the low voter turn outs that have been common in the last few years. I wonder what the Buddha would say about apathy?

SuzanneF's picture

The principles seem fine to me. It's the assumptions in the title and the text that the USA is the world that's disconcerting. The rest of the world knows well that the coming elections will have an impact on the rest of us. However, not as much difference as we ould wish for. just to note as well that politics goes on outside US borders, and Buddhists are involved in them.

Joes_Logic's picture

This is the strangest article I have ever read, it assumes the Buddha was interested in politics. I have been interested in Buddhism for over 30 years,  where in his teachings does it ever say that voting is Right Action?

As far as I'm aware, the Buddha renounced worldliness to focus his life on the 'path to enlightenment'.

Surely politics is a worldly pursuit - being even slightly associated with the self-serving, greedy, lying, war-mongering hedonists that we call our leaders  surely goes against, in some way, all of the eight noble paths.

I had to laugh (out loud!) when I read that giving money to politians is 'Dana' -  I'll assume something now, I am sure the Buddha would find this article hilarious, and it is certainly a work of fiction at the least, was it written on April 1st?


PS What about the Ninth Path, Right Association?


melcher's picture

"self-serving, greedy, lying, war-mongering hedonists"...hmm, let's see, which of the precepts is it that refers to speaking ill about others?

bija's picture

I too laughed out loud when I got to the "give money part." The amount of money that will go into this presidential election on both side is unprecedented. Neither side needs my money to get their message out. I will continue to vote in every election and I will take what money I can and give it to local food kitchens, our free healthcare clinic, and other local charities that continue to need money (no matter which party is elected) to help the poor.

saipandavid's picture

But I agree, I dont think politics should be part of this site.  You wanna preach politics, fine go to another website please. 


robert nelder's picture

yes, let dictators in buddhist countries continue to flaunt the will of their people for a justice society... when i was in Burma a few years ago it was fascinating to see billboards with buddhist quotes to support the military ...of course we know what happened to the monk there when they joined the people... yes some people think they should have stayed on their meditation cushions... buddhists are accused of navel gazing... i wonder why?

vickijo45's picture

If you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.  Please keep politics out of your discussions. George Bush got 3 million more votes than Al Gore.  Check out the "Info Please" web site.  http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922901.html#axzz0zh9X4DwI

Philip Ryan's picture

Gore got 500,000 more votes than Bush. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions. It's helpful to know the difference.

poet748's picture

Not the 2000 election. Here's the link you want to see that Al Gore, not Bush, won the popular vote in 2000: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0876793.html#axzz0ziEeza6y