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Buddhism and Politics

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It’s election season again… mid-terms this time. Should engaged Buddhists get involved, as Buddhists that is, or not? Or should we just keep quiet and go to the voting booth as though our spiritual practice has nothing to do with our vote?

Maybe… maybe not.

A while ago, I wrote:

My sense is that many people (particularly Buddhists) get all weird and phobic about the notion of ‘politics’ when really all it means, in its simplest form, is the use of power. Power itself, just like emotions, is neutral. It is how we work with it that makes it positive or negative, that creates beneficial actions or harmful ones. Power is everywhere, including in Buddhist centers. So to take part mindfully and skillfully in politics can be a practice, just like anything else.

So, here are some thoughts on Buddhism and politics, as non-dualistically as I can manage them.

I just read an interesting article by Van Jones and Billy Wimsatt. The bottom line, according to them: “Voter guides are cheap and easy and they help win elections. The right-wing uses them better than we do.” Jones and Wimsatt write,

According to these voter guides (which exist in all 50 states), the vast majority of Democrats in Congress are “Anti-Jesus” and have a “faith friendly” rating of zero. No matter that the majority are Christians and people of faith. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans are similar to John Ensign: They get a perfect score.

The goal of this campaign, created by http://www.PrayInJesusName.org is to fax these voter guides to 120,000 churches, to be distributed among congregations during Sunday services.

Clearly, people of other religious persuasions are linking up their religious and political beliefs. Not that this makes it the right thing to do, but it’s happening.

So what would happen if we were to play around a bit with a Buddhist perspective on elections? (Please note I did not say “the” Buddhist perspective. I would never presume that there is one Buddhist opinion on anything, much less politics. Buddhists are, by nature, a pretty un-definable group of folks. Have you ever tried to organize a bunch of Buddhists to do anything? It’s worse than herding cats.)

A number of years ago, we tried that at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We created a guide to the 2004 elections. In the guide, we sketched out some of the major issues of that year and explored how Buddhist teachings might be relevant to those issues. As a nonprofit organization, we could not endorse candidates or parties, but we listed the positions that each candidate had taken in relationship to that issue and encouraged people to decide for themselves how their dharma practice might inform their vote.

It’s no surprise, of course, that BPF was and still is a progressive, left-leaning organization, so we were not without our own biases on the candidates and the issues and you’ll no doubt pick up on those in the text below. But our attempt with this guide was to offer information and encourage people to get involved in the electoral process in whatever way they determined was appropriate for them.

So, here’s a walk down memory lane… an excerpt from that original Election Guide. (The original document is quite long, which is why I’m only including one issue here. The other issues it covered were the economy, globalization, human rights/civil rights, the environment, and health care. If there’s interest, I can post the text from the rest of the guide.) Amazing to think back on a time when Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton were all in the running…

I’m interested to hear what you think. How relevant is your Buddhist background when you consider how you are voting, or to take a step further back, how you relate to the whole electoral/political process in general?

 

Election 2004 Guide to Issues and Candidates’ Positions

From the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship offers the following information for the purpose of voter education about the major campaign issues of 2004. As a nonprofit organization, we do not endorse specific candidates, nor do we take specific stands on legislative issues. As an organization whose mission is to help beings liberate themselves from the suffering that manifests in individuals, relationships, institutions, and social systems, we do encourage all those who value teachings of wisdom and compassion to actively and thoughtfully engage in these issues within your sanghas and communities.

This document provides a basic outline of some of this year’s major issues, their potential impact on the lives of sentient beings, and each candidate’s position on them. For some of these issues, we have included thoughts from a dharmic perspective. But in the spirit of inquiry, we echo Gautama Buddha’s injunction: “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it” (the Kalama Sutta).

Information on candidates’ positions comes from The New York Times and is current as of February 14, 2004. Please keep in mind that these positions may change; we suggest you follow news sources regularly to keep yourself informed. And most of all, we encourage you to exercise your civic responsibility and vote in your state’s primary and on November 2, 2004.

Terrorism and National Security

This election year, the specter of terrorism looms large for Americans. In a December 2003 Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans ranked it as the most important issue that will determine how they vote. The attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to reverberate in our national psyche and nearly all of our current lawmakers and politicians have placed terrorism on the top of their agendas. The responses and strategies they present almost always revolve around increased levels of military spending and intervention, and curtailing of civil rights and privacy. Other practical alternatives that would work to keep us safe have been offered, though these are usually given less coverage in the mainstream press – for example, Sen. Schumer’s bill (passed in January 2003) to provide $150 million to plug the gap in US port security. A number of political and spiritual leaders urge us to address the root causes of terrorism around the world. But the main discourse has been dominated by militaristic responses.

In 1999, the U.S. spent $281 billion on defense, far outranking the second biggest spender, China ($89 billion). In the 2000 federal budget, $291 billion was allocated for defense compared to $35 billion for education. The next president and administration will choose whether to continue this same course. And they will decide on major policy issues related to use of our defense. In 2003, the Bush Administration made the decision to bypass the United Nations and stage a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, under the premise that the U.S. was in imminent danger from the Iraqi government. This premise has yet to be proven true, and the future ramifications of such a decision are critical.

From a Buddhist perspective, the question of intention and motivation is helpful to consider. What is the intention behind these actions and proposals? How much is driven by panic, fear, and the profit motive? What would a life-affirming approach to these issues look like? One of the best known quotes from the Dhammapada is “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.” How does this teaching apply to this issue?

 

Candidates Positions

George W. Bush

• Following Sept. 11 attacks on U.S., instituted policy of pre-emptive strikes against suspected threats to the nation’s security, where U.S. would act alone or with others to protect the nation. • Prosecuted successful war against Taliban forces in Afghanistan and is currently working to create a stable, democratic government there.

• Invaded Iraq, calling it a threat to nation’s security. • Swift military victory in Iraq was followed by violent aftermath, halting efforts at stabilizing new government. • Won congressional approval of $87 billion for continued military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. • Calls for a Palestinian state as part of yet-to-be-adopted “road map for peace” plan. • Administration has had a deep rift with some traditional allies in Europe over war in Iraq.

 

Howard Dean

• Opposes the war in Iraq. • Would transfer sovereignty to “credible and legitimate” Iraqi leaders and “encourage the United Nations to take responsibility for this political transition.” • Supported war in Afghanistan. • “One priority should be strengthening our bonds with other countries, especially our historical allies in a world growing ever more interdependent.” • “Our long range foreign policy ought to embrace nation building, not run from it.” • Would open talks with North Korea. • Would triple American financing to $30 billion over 10 years to combat unconventional weapons around the world. • Has said he would approve the use of force to halt genocide. • Would increase finances to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile. Would appoint a nonproliferation czar and convene a summit within six months to draw up a “global nuclear compact”

 

John Edwards

• Mr. Edwards voted for the war last year in a Congressional resolution but against the $87 billion appropriation in the fall to finance rebuilding and some military operations. • Would put the Iraqi Civilian Authority under the control of the United Nations. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe.

• On North Korea: “We should negotiate with the North Koreans. We should be tough. We should require that they stop their nuclear development program. We should have the absolute ability to verify that that has occurred.” • On the Middle East: Has said that he believes “a two-state solution is ultimately the answer” but would not negotiate with Yasir Arafat. Would send an envoy to the region. • Would devote more resources to worldwide disarmament programs and to cooperative threat-reduction programs.

 

John Kerry

• Supported decision to go to war but now says he did so based on faulty U.S. intelligence. • Opposed $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan. • Believes greater international involvement is necessary in Iraq. • Supported legislation providing American expertise and funding to the nations of the former Soviet Union to help secure nuclear stockpiles, a program that he now supports extending to other countries.

• Fought against withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe • Brought issue of investigations of U.S. involvement in Latin America, especially with the Nicaraguan Contras, to the forefront. • On Middle East: Sees the Bush Administration’s road map as an acceptable approach for reinvigorating the peace process, but says there must be verifiable security benchmarks that the Palestinian Authority can reasonably achieve.

 

Dennis Kucinich

• Opposed U.S. going to war, and wants United Nations to take over in Iraq. “It is time to bring our troops home.” • Says the U.S. must immediately work to ratify a number of international measures including: the Kyoto Treaty on Global Climate Change, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Landmine Ban Treaty

• Says, “Foreign aid should be used to protect our interests in terms of diplomacy, human rights, isolation of disease, environmental destruction and prevention of increased refugees to the U.S.” • Has proposed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace dedicated to peacemaking and the study of conditions that are conducive to both domestic and international peace.

 

Al Sharpton

• Opposed war in Iraq. • Meet with Anan immediately, admit that we were wrong in our unilateral actions and negotiate the U.N.’s introduction into the process. • Open the rebuilding process up to the U.N. to all of our allies who have supported us over the last 50 years

 

 

Practicing Peace at Ground Zero

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There’s a great post by Patrick Groneman over at the Interdependence Project website about the Bearing Witness vigil that took place near Ground Zero in New York City on the ninth anniversary of September 11, 2001. The small group of meditators had to make their way through two very vocal opposing forces — those in support of the proposed mosque/Islamic community center and those against it.

An excerpt from Patrick’s post:

After the first two minutes of sitting and following my breathing I broke into tears –all I could feel and hear was pain, and it was so deep, and so pervasive. My own fear and sadness became indistinguishable from the pain and suffering of those around me. Like a nursery of babies crying for our lost mothers, it seemed like we were all there looking for a way to express our sadness and fear to each other, but instead it came out in anger:

“Faggot” “Racist” “Idiot” “Hippie” “Biggot” “Terrorist” “U-S-A!!”

Like bullets the protesters shot words at each other, considering it a victory if they got shot back at, finding solidarity not in peace, but in perpetuating the energy of argument. No real conversation about sadness, grief, fear or anger could take place in this environment, there was no space for healing.

The longer we sat, the more people became curious abut what we were doing – cameras were clicking, people were asking us what we were trying to accomplish. One passerby yelled:

“This is New York, don’t just sit there…stand up and say what you believe in”

You can read the whole post here. Thank you for your practice, Patrick.

Bhikkhu Bodhi Goes to Washington

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Bhikkhu Bodhi at the White House, July 26, 2010

I’m a fan of Bhikkhu Bodhi in real life, and also on his Facebook page. That’s how I heard about this story which he posted on Facebook this past Thursday, July 29. Buddhist Global Relief is the organization that Bhikkhu Bodhi founded in 2008, dedicated to the mission of providing relief to the poor and needy throughout the world regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

Buddhist Global Relief at White House Meeting on Interfaith Action Against Poverty

This past month, Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) received a unique honor in being requested to join a task force on interfaith action to alleviate poverty and combat illness around the world. The first meeting of the task force took place at the White House on July 26th. The task force is intended to spearhead the Global Initiative for Faith, Health and Development, an international project guided and organized by the Center for Interfaith Action (CIFA), based in Washington. The Global Initiative was launched in response to President Obama’s call for the world’s religions to collaborate on issues of humanitarian concern. Its objective is to produce a strategic framework for advancing and multiplying inter-religious cooperation on action against global poverty and illness.

The task force brings together the world’s most prominent faith-based relief organizations for the purpose of designing the framework. In appointing the task force, CIFA wanted to broaden the range of the Global Initiative by including delegates from other religions besides the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After a careful review, they chose BGR as the most suitable Buddhist organization to serve in this role. Though BGR has been in existence for only two years, the organizers were impressed by its significant achievements and the broad reach of its programs during such a short period of activity.

CIFA invited BGR chairperson Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and executive director Kim Behan to participate in the first meeting of the task force, held at the White House on the afternoon of July 26th. The meeting opened with words of welcome and encouragement from Rev. Josh Dubois, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama. The conveners of the meeting then gave a broad presentation of CIFA’s plans to increase interfaith collaboration, illustrated by detailed charts and diagrams. This was followed by a lively exchange of views and comments from the members of the task force, with appreciated contributions from Ven. Bodhi and Kim Behan.

In the course of several future meetings, the task force will design a strategy to strengthen the contribution of the religious sector to poverty alleviation and global development. The next meeting will be held on October 4th at the United Nations in New York. This will be followed by a two-day session in November, to be held at the Washington National Cathedral and the White House. At this session, the participants will finalize the design of the strategic framework. The hope is that the framework will create a clear plan of action for different faith communities to work together in addressing the problems of poverty, hunger, and disease.

We at BGR feel privileged to be able to share in this worthy effort. We believe this appointment marks a significant recognition of BGR’s attempts to address the plight of the poor around the world. We hope that by participating actively with other faith-based organizations, we can make a significant difference in the lives of the marginalized sector of humanity.

A Declaration of Interdependence

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Photo: Paul Davis

As the Fourth of July approaches, I’d like to offer an alternative way to think about and celebrate the day. How about a day of remembering how interdependent we all are?

The essay below was originally written in 2004 by Alan Senauke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and presented to delegates of the Republican and Democractic conventions that year. A number of people contributed to subsequent drafts, including: Robert Aitken Roshi, Hilda Ryumon Gutiérrez Baldoquín, Diane Gregorio, Ken Kraft, Santikaro Larsen, Diana Lion, David Loy, Bob Lyons, Susan Moon, Cliff Reiss, Craig Richards, Donald Rothberg, Cedar Spring, Diana Winston, and myself.

The essay was updated in 2006 and the questions at the bottom were added at that time.

________________________

A Declaration of Interdependence:
A Call to Transform the Three Poisons for the Sake of All Sentient Beings

January 2006

As concerned global citizens and as members of a diverse Buddhist community, we want to contemplate and question the role of government in creating a civil and compassionate society. From the standpoint of interconnectedness, those of us living in the United States have a special responsibility to the whole world to explore this question. We know our government is in a position to effect great social change all across this world—change that can be both positive and negative.

Like most people, we are concerned about the war in Iraq, terrorism, deteriorating public schools, low-paying jobs, racism, and vanishing civil liberties. We are concerned that politics as usual— whether Democratic or Republican—offers little or no meaningful change of direction. Yet we refuse to succumb to apathy, cynicism, or anger. We seek a politics rooted in compassion and generosity born in each of us. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with, to recognize our human connection across all lines of race, culture, nationality, and identity. Generosity means to give freely of what we have, because giving to others is the natural expression of seeing others as ourselves.

Buddhist practice and ethical precepts call forth a range of beneficial views that apply as much to society as to individuals. Twenty-five hundred years ago, when Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree, he said, “Now I am awakened together with all sentient beings.” Every person on the planet has the full capacity to wake up from the mistaken notion that we are separate from each other. Each of us is connected interdependently with all others, including those who disagree with us. This understanding leads to a reverence for the preciousness of all sentient life.

There are barriers, however, that make people and nations believe that they are separate. From a Buddhist perspective, the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion cloud our minds and skew our actions:

• Greed is the driving force in a consumer society that supports undemocratic corporations that sell us things we don’t need. Greed is also at the root of a system in which people, including government officials, are corrupted by the seemingly insatiable appetite for money and power. Looking deeply, we see that nothing can be hoarded, accumulated, or held on to. We understand, too, that those things we take from others that are not freely given—resources, labor, wealth, votes, and more—are the birthright of all people. All people have the right to decide how these resources are used.

• Hatred gives birth to war, prejudice, and repression. Those forces tend to perpetuate themselves in a ceaseless cycle of violence and militarism. As Buddhism and other faith traditions affirm, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.” Hatred is rooted in separateness; compassion is rooted in connection. Which way would we wish to turn?

• Delusion, or ignorance, stems from our tendency not to see reality just as it is. We are schooled in delusion by systems of indoctrination and mass media that condition us from early childhood to buy into the false promises of consumerism and American exceptionalism. Delusion is the driving force evident in our ever-more centralized media.

And finally, we do not have government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Rather, government has become a holding company for corporate control. When we fail to point out the unraveling of our democratic system, and—as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made clear— the way in which so many citizens lack even the necessities for a life of self-respect, we have fallen prey to the delusion of separateness, and we disempower ourselves and others.

The current political and economic system is tainted by these poisons, which necessarily reinforce each other. When we spend many billions of dollars on a foreign war premised on lies and distortions, we have no money to buy food, medicine, and first-class education for the poor at home…or for displaced peoples in need around the world. So a spiral of anger, resentment, need and confusion spins on and on.

And yet we are called to participate in this very system, even with all its injustices and inequalities. The task before us requires presence of mind, awareness, patience, and perseverance. We wish to be part of a polity that is genuinely representative and fully participatory.

All of us—whatever our faith, political affiliation, cultural background, or economic status—have the same wish for safety and well-being. We may agree or disagree with each other. We may approve or disapprove of a given candidate or representative’s positions. But in these decisive times, when so much is at stake, we must act with courage.

Traditional Buddhist teachings invite us to consider the well-being of the generations to come, seeing the future of parents, children, and loved ones. How will our loved ones be impacted if we fail to take care of the present? This kind of care calls for transformation: personal, political, economic, social, and cultural. Transformation is difficult work. We are often afraid to exchange a familiar situation—even one that causes us suffering—for a future that is unknown. Our challenge is to step into the unknown and not fear change or discomfort. Our challenge is to understand that principled conflict is often the midwife of transformation.

With these principles in mind, we offer three areas of transformation to apply when designing policies that will shape lives around the world. As students of the Buddha’s way of wisdom and compassion, we vow to practice these principles in our own lives, and to bring this understanding into our work in the social and political realms:

• Transform greed into generosity.

• Transform hatred into love and compassion.

• Transform ignorance into clarity and attention.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States says, “All men [and women] are created equal.” In Buddhism, the corollary teaching is that within each of us there is innate goodness and wholeness. Actualization of these ideals is only possible in a life-affirming society. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create the social conditions and political structures that enable people to live with dignity, honor, safety, and sufficient resources.

Only by working together can we renew our world. Only by working together can we insure that the U.S. will fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all. In our hearts we long to see this vision born anew. As engaged Buddhists and spiritual activists, we commit ourselves to this path.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. How do the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion manifest in my own life as a global citizen? For example, what are my consumption patterns around food, oil, and other limited resources?

2. What is one way in which I can work to transform my personal relationship to greed, hatred, or delusion? How can my dharma practice support this process of transformation?

3. How do the three poisons manifest in the social and political structures in my local region? For example, how does ignorance take form in our school/educational system?

4. What is one local issue that I would like to engage with, and what are some ways that I can support the cultivation of generosity, compassion, and clarity in this area?

David Loy on Obama and Politics

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David Loy, Buddhist scholar and author of The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and other books, has some interesting things to say about President Obama, the military escalation in Afghanistan, and politics in general in a post over on the Shambhala Sun website. An excerpt:

The lesson to be learned from the Obama campaign is that it’s a big mistake to expect the political/economic system to reform itself. People must demand the changes that are needed, a demand that assumes greater awareness of what is actually happening, and greater awareness is where Buddhism comes in. Buddhism is about dispelling delusions and seeing things as they really are, which means that Buddhism may have an important role to play in the great transformations that are needed if humanity and the biosphere are to survive and thrive in the future — a future that looks pretty grim right now.

A few themes in David’s post and the comments that follow it include:

  • The role of a leader, of lobbyists, and of citizens themselves in effecting “radical reformation” in militarism, economics, and other areas;
  • What role did delusion play in our expectations about Obama as a candidate for president?
  • What does it mean for Buddhism and Buddhists to be ‘politically engaged,’ not merely ‘engaged’?

The comment I contributed: “As to politically engaged Buddhism, my sense is that many people (particularly Buddhists) get all weird and phobic about the notion of ‘politics’ when really all it means, in its simplest form, is the use of power. Power itself, just like emotions, is neutral. It is how we work with it that makes it positive or negative, that creates beneficial actions or harmful ones. Power is everywhere, including in Buddhist centers. So to take part mindfully and skillfully in politics can be a practice, just like anything else.”

There’s certainly more to be said about all that, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Rev. Danny Fisher on “No Buddhists in Washington?”

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Rev. Danny Fisher posted a thought-provoking article, “No Buddhists in Washington,” on yesterday’s Religion Dispatches website. The premise of the article:

Buddhism, which has a larger US population than either Islam or Hinduism, has had a sizable and growing impact on American culture. So why no representative on the Obama administration’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?

There actually are, to my knowledge, at least two Buddhists serving in the U.S. Congress — Hank Johnson (Democrat from Georgia’s 4th Congressional District) and Mazie Hirono (Democrat from Hawaii).

But aside from those two names, there really aren’t many self-identified Buddhists in positions of political influence and, as Danny points out, there is no Buddhist representative on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He makes a good case on what Buddhists might contribute to that effort and suggests names of some excellent potential candidates, including Jack Kornfield, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Jan Willis, and Roshi Joan Halifax.

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