Get off your cushion and get involved
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.