Ten Practices to Change the World

Get off your cushion and get involved

Susan Moon

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Try giving to a political cause you believe in with the same spirit of selfless generosity with which you would give to a mendicant monk. Unfortunately, as we have been finding out, money makes a huge difference in the outcome of elections. Organizations like MoveOn.org are putting money to good use for the cause of democracy and peace. What is it worth to you, in dollars, to see the environmental, international, and social-service policies of this country change? Don't think that what you can give is too small; many small gifts add up. And why not give more than you ever expected to give? Whatever happens, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you tried.

4. Read and Write.
Educate yourself about the issues. It's traditional for Buddhists to study the sutras, or teachings. We can find sutras not only in the Pali canon but in stones and grasses, as the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen tells us, and today we can find sutras in alternative media sources. As Buddhists we try to see things as they are. The mainstream news media don't show us things as they are, but rather things as the powers-that-be would like us to believe they are. We need to reach out to other sources of information. There are many excellent news sources among the alternative media. Try reading The Nation, listening to Pacifica Radio, or going online to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, www.fair.org).It·s particularly instructive for Americans to read news media from other countries. This will help you see how narrow in scope is the news reporting that we get in the United States. I have found it educational to go to the British newspaper The Guardian at www.guardian.co.uk, and I recommend that you stretch your mind, as I did mine, at the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera, at http://english.aljazeera.net/english. It's not the voice of terrorism, after all.

As you educate yourself, you will have more confidence. Write a letter to the editor, or write an Op-Ed piece, stating your views about important issues that are not being addressed. And do so without a mind.ofhatred.

5. Listen and Talk to People You Don't Agree With
If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that, as Buddha pointed out, all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. A Buddhist practices nonattachment to views. If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.

Learn Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a model developed by Marshall Rosenberg (see "Say It Right," Tricycle, Winter 2002), which fosters respect and empathy even under difficult conditions. Attend a workshop, or get a trainer to come to your group. The skills learned in NVC can be helpful in talking about the coming election with people who are undecided about whom to vote for. See the website for the Center for Nonviolent Communication: www.cnvc.org, and Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Remember, we are all related and interconnected, whether we like each other or not, present administration not excepted.

6. Share the Good News. Celebrate the Positive. Thank Your Elected Representatives When They Act With Courage.
As Shantideva writes in The Bodhisattva's Way of Life,

            Praise all who speak the truth,
            And say, "Your words are excellent."
            And when you notice others acting well,
            Encourage them in terms of warm approval.

There is good news from time to time, and we need to hear it. Protect yourself and your mind from too much negativity. Not turning away from suffering doesn't mean wallowing in the horror of it all. Use mindfulness practice to notice how you feel when you are reading the paper or watching TV, and if you find yourself falling into despair, find a way to transform it. Limit the amount of time or change the time of day when you follow the news. Trade neck and shoulder rubs with a partner while you watch TV. Give yourself the assignment of finding at least one piece of good news in the daily paper (for example, today: "Thousands of Democracy Supporters March in Hong Kong"). Keep your elected representatives' phone numbers handy, and follow up your daily news intake with a phone call about whatever seems most important.

You need to take care of yourself and your energy so that you can act for peace. Read and be inspired by Rebecca Solnit's new book on activism, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

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japan.comp234's picture

I as of late went over your online journal and have been perusing along. I thought I would leave my first remark. I don't realize what to say aside from that I have delighted in perusing. Pleasant online journal, I will continue going to this website all the time. us

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