The Politics of Karma, the Karma of Politics
Martial arts? Sounds about right. I spend a fair amount of time giving politicians advice - some solicited, some not. Theirs is a hard, pragmatic world: What will reach youth voters in Ohio? How can working-class ethnic enclaves be mobilized? How do we differentiate ourselves in a 30-second ad? In a world like that, what's a nice Buddhist practitioner to do?
British author and Zen practitioner Ken Jones, who has written extensively on engaged Buddhism, warned me via email from Wales about the "vortex of party politics, where it is all too easy to be swept off your feet and lose mindfulness. (It's) a rough old trade, and not for any of our co-religionists who crave Purity and Perfection."
"I believe that Buddhists are widely regarded as nice guys but pretty idealistic and ineffective," Jones added, "at least in ‘practical politics.' This will continue to be so as long as many of us remain attached to a literal, rather than a situational, understanding of the ethical precepts." Bernie Glassman used similar language: "It's important to remember that the precepts are situational," he told me. "What could be considered simple honesty in one situation can turn out to be harmful speech in another."
After my exchanges with Nisker, Waldman, and Thurman, I wondered if Obama had won some unreported Buddhist Primary. I'd been supporting him for some time myself, but Obama's a devout Christian and a relatively centrist Democrat pursuing moderate voters. He might not appreciate being labeled "the Dharma candidate" (though it might help counter those email rumors that he's a Muslim!)
Thurman's talk of an "Enlightenment Party" isn't likely to play in Peoria, either, but his 10-point Buddhist-derived political platform (Buddhists love numbered lists) offers some surprisingly centrist proposals. He wrote in 1998 that an enlightened politics should be "pro-wealth" (he says wealth can be the fruit of past-life actions) and should support the individual over the state. This philosophy - you might call it "liberational libertarianism" - even suggests that each taxpayer be allowed to choose which programs their taxes will support.
Jack Kornfield was clearly not partisan: "The Buddha spoke forcefully against caste and against racism, but the Dharma also embraces values we sometimes label conservative: It respects individuality, morality, generosity, forgiveness - all the elements of Jesus Christ's message, for example. It's very easy to see politics in a polarized way and believe the Dharma follows one political dimension or another, but that's a limited view. The Dharma is neither Left nor Right."
So our "Buddhist primary" may have some left-leaning sympathies, but it also includes some Obama-like "postpartisanship." That might help explain his strong showing in the Dharma caucuses. Then there's the matter of the candidate's personal bearing, which seems balanced and centered. "There is some kind of development in Obama that's very fine," Bob Thurman insisted. "He's very self-restrained."
Some of this restraint revealed itself in a YouTube video of Obama speaking to his campaign staff after he won the nomination. In it he talks of the need to "submerge our egos" in support of a "common task." Sounds enlightened enough.
Yet it would be reckless to place too much hope in one person, especially a politician. They're imperfect - like the rest of us. More importantly, they and we are part of an interconnected web of much larger forces. It is to those forces we must ultimately look. "We are the people that should see to infinity," a Zen teacher once told me. And Sulak Sivaraksa cites Sri Lankan activist A. T. Ariyadne, who says his country's problems took 500 years to develop and has a 500 year plan for solving them.
Wes Nisker takes the long view, too, when he observes that "the word ‘ecology' is only thirty or thirty-five years old. We're only now awakening," he says. "We're seeing things in a radical new way. It's not a time for despair. It's time for raising hope. Want to get involved? Here's something you can do: Raise hope!"
Any politician will disappoint us at times. "I'd like to see a candidate who says ‘may all beings benefit,'" says Wes. Well, not this year. And politics is a "rough old trade." As I write this, Fox News has just called Mrs. Obama the Senator's "Baby Mama," a racially derogatory term for the unwed mother of a man's children. That kind of speech turns politics into an anger factory.
Joseph Campbell liked to quote a saying the Irish once used during barroom brawls: "Is this a private fight or can anybody join?" It's not mandatory to dive into the fracas, but as Ken Jones said: "Grass roots election work can be valuable and sobering Dharma practice, as well as maybe doing a bit of good in the world."
Whatever their views on politics, everyone I contacted seconded Sulak Sivaraksa: It's not Buddhist to pursue a selfish Nirvana.
"In dreams," wrote William Butler Yeats, "begin responsibility." And, the Buddhist might add, in awakening too.