Election Returns

The Politics of Karma, the Karma of PoliticsRJ Eskow


When I told friends about my struggle, some advised me to walk away. "You can't live a spiritual life in the political world," one said. I repeated that comment to Roshi Bernie Glassman, who is not involved in political activity. "That's an interesting question," he said. "The sixth Mahayana precept says ‘don't elevate yourself by criticizing others.' But that also applies to people who judge others as ‘not being Buddhist.'"

But I do get angry, I admitted. "As a human, those kinds of problems arise all the time," he answered. "So, what do you do? You do your best and have the right intention."

Does the sixth precept mean I can't condemn the other party's actions? "Yes," said Roshi Bernie. "It means 'don't criticize your opponents. Don't criticize President Bush.' Just because you think you're right doesn't make them wrong." But, he continued, "Political speech is like pruning a tree: it only becomes a problem if you do too much of it. In the same way, activities like social or political speech often become a problem only if you talk too long."

What if your political and spiritual lives are in conflict? "Then you're going about it the wrong way," he said, adding: "Don't get down on yourself if you're not interested in being socially engaged, either. I don't encourage that. I don't buy into the notion that you need to feel bad about yourself if that's not where you are right now."

He concluded: "If you're only interested in that skinbag of a body you call ‘self' and you're only serving that entity, it shows. On the other hand, if your definition of self includes society, you'll help society. And if your definition includes the universe, that will reveal itself too."

Sulak Sivaraksa, who has been imprisoned for "lese majeste" (criticizing the King), says: "We must learn to avoid all fear - including the fear of conflict. If you speak a harsh truth, it's still the truth."

I was all too aware of my own tendency to speak "harsh truths" when I made my next call. Whenever someone speaks softly and gently, I become painfully aware of how rapid and emphatic - and harsh - my own speech can be. Jack Kornfield's calm voice reflects his years of spiritual growth. Before acting politically, he had written, "we must first make our hearts a zone of peace."

I felt acutely aware of my rough edges as our conversation began. "I encourage political engagement as a dimension of spiritual life," he told me. "As Gandhi said: ‘Those who say spirituality has nothing to do with politics, they do not know what spirituality really means.'"

Soon I was slowing down my speech and lowering my voice to match his: "Well ... what about the conflict and resentment some of us still feel?"

"The most important thing to remember if you want to act in the political sphere is to quiet the mind and open the heart." I asked how he viewed the upcoming election: "It's not appropriate to support any party or candidate in my role as a Dharma teacher - although privately I'm an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama."

When the primaries ended, the political community's attention turned to the general election's "key demographics." I could never fully agree with those Democrats who criticize rural evangelicals for voting Republican because, they believe, these voters place moral and religious values above their economic self-interest. We may disagree with them about which moral values they choose to embrace, but what's nobler than placing selfless interests above your own? Isn't there a way to connect with them, to collaborate in their search for higher purpose?

Radio host Thom Hartmann, who has taken Buddhist views and follows a mystical strain of Christianity, reflected on his own political experience: "I became politically aware when I was a Goldwater Republican, following my father door-to-door in 1964 at thirteen. Later I became an antiwar and civil rights activist ... I found (spirituality) in both (left and right) - in the conservative Goldwater movement, which was a very activist ‘let's get involved,' ‘let's make this a better world' movement, and then in the student movement, which was very much about making a better world. I found in both that same sense of ‘it's all alive,' ‘it's all us,' ‘we have an obligation to make it all better.' Or at least that's what I got out of it."

If I found myself unconsciously slowing my speech with Jack Kornfield, I had the opposite problem with Robert Thurman. He talks so quickly and enthusiastically it's hard to keep up. Thurman has a close relationship with the Dalai Lama and is a scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. He's expert in the "mother meditation" that triggered my nightmare vision of Dick Cheney as "Mom."

He laughed when I told him about my problem. "He was your Mom - and mine too, according to the Buddhist beginninglessness idea. That's especially tough when you consider breastfeeding," he said with a chuckle. "But don't worry. It was a different lifetime and he was cuter then."

So, do we have to forgive Mother Dick?

"Yes," he said. "That's key. The teachings say that the warden, the torturer, is getting worse karma than the prisoner, and we have to behave compassionately toward them."

But shouldn't these people be punished?

"Shantideva said ‘the only thing worth hating is hate itself.' Which means you can't hate. Because there are endless people to get revenge on - endless ... The first person that gets happy when you forgive your enemy is you. Look at martial arts. The key is to to not be angry at your opponent, to stay cool, and let their own violence rebound back on themselves by keeping yourself out of the way.

"Well, this is the martial art of dealing with the trials and tribulations of politics."

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.