Buddhism and Politics: A Dialogue

Originally posted by Upaya News


There is no universal agreement among Buddhists about the right solutions to political issues or even how to prioritize them












by Maia Duerr

Several years ago on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles, I posed a question to readers: 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?

(Here is the original post, which also included a 2004 Election Guide to Candidates and Issues published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.)

A rich conversation ensued from that question. Here are some excerpts:


Shodo Spring (Soto Zen priest and author of Take Up Your Life)

In response to your questions, I would say that my Buddhist orientation determines everything about my politics. How could freeing all beings NOT be relevant to how we vote and act in the realm of politics?


Seth Segall (Zen practitioner and blogger)

If you are a Buddhist there is no non-Buddhist part of your life. There is a Buddhist way that you try to engage in relationships, a Buddhist way that you look at the way you spend your time, a Buddhist way you look at how you spend your income, a Buddhist way you look at how you earn your livelihood, and a Buddhist way you to decide how to cast your vote and how to express yourself politically.

There is no universal agreement among Buddhists about the right solutions to political issues or even how to prioritize them. There can be agreement, however, about trying to not make one’s political actions the product of greed, aversion, or delusion, and about acting mindfully and employing right speech, etc.

There also should be some degree of non-attachment and non-self in the way we conduct ourselves as well. We care deeply about outcomes and work hard for what we belieive, but the outcomes are not about ourselves, and we understand that the universe is not going to comply with all our wishes. We are going to need a good deal of equanimity and a deeper perspective on how causes and conditions evolve over time to deal with what, at least for now, looks like a debacle at the ballot box next month!

I drew some consolation from a Gail Collins op-ed piece earlier this year about how many years it took (and how many defeats there were along the way!) before women’s sufferage became a reality in the United States.

Working for issues we care about in a climate that isn’t entirely favorable to them takes persistence and courage, and it may take generations to reach one’s goals, but goals can be obtainable nevertheless. Slavery did end, women can vote, health care can be a right, and in the coming year gays and lesbians may be able to serve openly in the military. Change comes slowly with many reversals and defeats along the way, but it does happen. Keep the faith!


Maia’s response:

Thank you, Seth. The interesting thing, as I read your comment, is that I’m realizing that we can achieve important goals on one level — yes, slavery did end, women can vote — and yet on a deeper level the root suffering still remains. Racism is still firmly in place. Sexism has not disappeared. Perhaps this is one of the limitations of working through the electoral/legislative process.


Nathan G. Thompson (Zen practitioner, yoga student, blogger)

I think people put too much energy into electoral politics, and not enough into grassroots action, community building, and cross-issue collaborating. Especially at the federal level, the differences in actual decisions (as opposed to rhetoric) are becoming less and less, regardless of party affiliation. Take a good hard look at the Clinton and Obama Administrations, and the periods when each had majorities in one or both sections of Congress. How much concrete differences came out of those periods (not talk, but actual action that changed lives for the better). Is it enough to justify the amount of energy we spend on getting these people in office?

Putting oodles of time into trying to get, or keep, one of these two parties in power is kind of backwards if you ask me. Do I vote? Sure. Do I research candidates? Sure. I have even gone and lobbied members of both the state and federal legislatures on particular issues. But I view all of that as part of a much bigger process, and consider elected power as only one form of collective power in society.

In my view, it’s really difficult to develop visions and start actually implementing them in even symbolic ways in our lives when every two or four years, a majority of the people involved disappear to door-knock and do fundrasing for some candidate. What would excite me would be to see a Buddhist effort around particular issues, sustained for decades in the way some churches have committed to working with immigrants for example. Where people try and come together across party lines to build something, which would include lobbying elected people and speaking about people running for office, but which would be much larger than that.


Maia’s response

Nathan, I’m coming to a place where I agree with you on the need to put our energy into other forms of power and decision-making processes. The whole electoral process feels bankrupt in many ways, and we mistakenly think if we find ‘just the right people’ to elect and be in power, things will be different. And then we nail them to the cross, like what’s happening to President Obama right now, from both the Right and the Left. The system itself is a huge mess.

I’ve also thought it might be a worthy effort to focus attention on ways to reform that system or build a new one. We could develop a movement that could focus on one or two changes that really could make a dramatic difference. For example, how might things be different if we had a proportional representation or cumulative voting system. Lani Guinier tried to offer that vision and she was ostracized for it, but it’s worth looking at again. How might things be different if true campaign finance reform was implemented?

We get tied up in knots working on these campaigns and for candidates who will inevitably fall short of our hopes and dreams… we exhaust ourselves in the process and get cynical. Maybe the problem is we’re playing in the wrong court.

I also really like your vision of a Buddhist effort that would focus on the issues themselves and how to grow change from the grassroots level… slow work, but work that needs to be rooted deep and be sustained for the long haul. Both your comment and Seth’s reminds me of something Martin Luther King, Jr. said so beautifully:

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


And finally – I want to add one more voice to this dialogue though this response was not part of my original blog post. Just yesterday, Karen MaezenMiller, a Zen priest at Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles and writer (see her wonderful blog, Cheerio Road), shared this with me:

We vote. We vote according to our own perspective and unattached to outcome. We allow our minds to be open; we allow others to have their own point of view. We care, and we care about others. If we’re asked and it is feasible, we walk the precincts, man the phones. I think that we do this as citizens, and not flag bearers, because our practice makes us aware of what needs to be done. Sometimes, we do as the Buddha did when he argued unsuccessfully against a battle between two warring camps: we sit on the sidelines and cry.


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Support Buddhist Global Relief’s Walk to Feed the Hungry

Originally posted by Jizo Chronicles


The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that food is a basic human right, which must be fulfilled without discrimination of any kind



Over the next couple of weeks, there are eight “Walks to Feed the Hungry”happening all around the U.S., organized by the good folks at Buddhist Global Relief (BGR).

These walks were initiated in 2010 by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and BGR as a way to raise both awareness and funds for food-related projects around the world. He writes:

A walk like this offers us, as Buddhists, a chance to express our collective compassion in solidarity with the world’s poor. It’s also a great form of exercise and an opportunity to make new friends. To walk a few miles may not seem like a demanding act, but when we view this event in context we can see that it has far-reaching implications. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that food is a basic human right, which must be fulfilled without discrimination of any kind. Sadly, our world has fallen terribly short of this commitment. Every year governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and wars, yet close to a billion people suffer from hunger and chronic malnutrition and two billion endure serious nutritional deficiencies.

A walks like this is a great source of merit and blessings and a collective expression of conscience on the part of us Buddhists.

While some of the walks have already taken place, there are more happening the rest of October. Here are the locations and dates:

Saturday, October 13
Ann Arbor / Metro Detroit, MI
Chicago IL
New York City, NY
San Francisco CA
Willington CT

Sunday, October 14
San Jose–Mountain View CA


Saturday, October 20
LA–Santa Monica CA


Thursday, October 25
Escondido CA
You can find out more information on this page – and you can also make a donation there even if you’re not able to join a walk. Help ‘em out — the folks at BGR do great work!
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New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care announces new board members

Originally posted by Buddhadharma.

The Board of Directors of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is pleased to announce their new board members.


Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison of NYZCCC

The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care(NYZCCC), which trains individuals to care for the terminally ill and sick, welcomes three new members to their board. The news comes from theNYZCCC Facebook group:

“The Board of Directors of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is pleased to announce our new Board Chairman, Terrence Meck; our new Board President, Joanne Heyman; and our new Board member, Fran Hauser. We look forward to continuing to bring this important and vital work into the world.”

Find out all about these newest members and more at the NYZCCC website.

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Buddhist monks’ art project spreads message of peace

Originally posted by Buddhist Channel.

A reminder that all we have — no matter how beautiful or carefully created — is impermanent.


Seven Buddhist monks was at the Spencer Museum of Art this week painstakingly constructing a sand painting called dul-tson-kyil-khor, meaning “mandala of colored powder.” On Friday, the monks will tossed the sand painting into Potter’s Lake in a symbolic gesture.

Lawrence, KS (USA) — Yes, Tenzin Dekyong confirms, creating sand paintings is as difficult as it looks.

Photo by Richard Gwin

Monks’ necks and backs hurt from hunching over their work, faces just inches from the sand. And, yes, sometimes they make mistakes, which must be mended just as carefully – if not more so – as the purposeful details are created.



On Tuesday, Dekyong and six other Buddhist monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India took a four-day process of creating a 5-by-5-foot mandala out of millions of grains of colored sand, painstakingly funneled into intricate designs on a platform in the Spencer Museum of Art Central Court, 1301 Miss.

On Friday, they swept up their entire project and poured the sand into Potter Lake.

The temporary display, Dekyong said, is a reminder that all we have — no matter how beautiful or carefully created — is impermanent.

Friday’s events included chanting and prayers and a procession from the museum to the lake. The monks believe placing the sand in a nearby body of water enables the water to carry the mandala’s healing energies throughout the world, according to an announcement from Kansas University.

Mark King and Rhonda Houser of Lawrence brought their 7-year-old son, Liam Kinghouser, to see the mandala in progress.

“We thought he might enjoy seeing them concentrating and creating something beautiful,” Houser said.

King said he’d watched monks creating a sand mandala once before, in Virginia, and that he’d wanted to visit since he heard the Spencer would be playing host to a similar event.

“It was such a good experience,” King said. “It’s just amazing — so peaceful.”

Through the course of building the mandala, a Sanskrit word for circle, the monks hope to spread their message of peace, love, compassion, unity and healing, Dekyong said. He said that specifically includes their hope for peace in Tibet, where Communist Chinese rulers do not allow Buddhists such as the monks to freely practice their religion.

The Drepung Gomang Monastery is in southern India, but most of its 2,000 monks are Tibetan. Their monastery originally was in Tibet, but the Dalai Lama and followers fled when the Chinese invaded and later rebuilt in India.

The design under way at the Spencer is called the Interfaith World Peace mandala. It has symbols signifying the world’s 12 major religions, the four elements and the four seasons.

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This is racism, not Buddhism

Originally posted by Buddhist Channe.

Monks did when they took to the streets in temple-studded Mandalay on Sunday to support the government’s brutal persecution of stateless Muslim Rohingya.

Bangkok, Thailand — How do you feel when you see rows of stern-looking Buddhist monks marching through the streets in full force to call for violent treatment of the downtrodden?

 Myanmar Buddhist monks rally on the streets of Mandalay (AFP)

That was what thousands of Myanmar monks did when they took to the streets in temple-studded Mandalay on Sunday to support the government’s brutal persecution of stateless Muslim Rohingya.

What were they thinking?

The world is full of injustice. But isn’t it the business of monks to advise against it, and not to be supportive of any form of prejudice and human cruelty?

Aren’t empathy and non-exploitation the key words in Buddhism? Aren’t monks supposed to devote their lives to deepening spiritual practice in order to see through the different layers of we-they prejudice so that compassion prevails in their hearts, words, and actions?

 Many people outside Myanmar were asking these questions because the anti-Rohingya monks were the same ones who dared challenge the government in 2007 to champion the people’s cause, and who themselves faced a violent crackdown by the military junta.

If the Buddha’s words were not important to them when they took to the streets, then what was? The answer is quite simple – racist nationalism. The monks do want justice for people, but just for their own kind.

As part of the dominant ethnic Bama Buddhists, they believe deeply the dark-skinned Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, aggressive outsiders who will steal land from the Buddhist folk. The monks therefore feel that it is just to support the government to eliminate the perceived threats to their motherland, their ethnicity, and their religion.

Call it patriotism, ultra-nationalism, ethnic prejudice, or racism. Whichever the label, it is mired in the we-they prejudice that divides people, fosters hatred, and triggers violence – everything Buddhism cautions against.

But should people who live in glass houses throw stones?

Our monks may still stop short of marching in the streets to call for the elimination of Malay Muslim separatists, but they have done so several times to call for a law which will help them retain supremacy over other religions.

Every time I cover their Buddhism-for-national-religion campaigns, I never fail to hear their deep suspicions of Islam. Meanwhile, bombs have blasted and killed people for eight years running in the restive South, yet we never hear our monks mentioning any concern about justice for the locals, nor for the need to open political space for Malay Muslims to voice their needs, address inequalities, and to extinguish the root causes of ethnic frustration and violence.

Instead, we see monks taking the defensive and dangerous route of ordaining soldiers to increase their number while allowing temples to be used as barracks.

Like their peers in Myanmar, our monks are in full support of the military to maintain the supremacy of the Buddhist majority. If violence must be used in this suppression, so be it.

But Thailand is also witnessing a rapid growth of lay Buddhism which focuses on meditation retreats and core Buddhist teachings. Can this movement act as a voice of sensibility when the country is mired in political divisiveness? If that’s your expectation, be prepared to be disappointed.

For its members, too, generally share the belief that the elimination of perceived threats is necessary, like the need to eliminate germs and diseases to restore one’s health. When this is your mindset – left or right, red or yellow, pro-or anti-establishment – you’ll believe the use of hate speech, half truths, and violence by your camp is perfectly all right.

No, we are not Buddhists. We may pray to the Buddha and close our eyes to meditate, but what shapes our thoughts, words, and actions is ideological extremism of all different shades.

The Buddha’s path leads to peaceful co-existence and sharing. Ideological extremism leads to control, suppression, and winner-takes-all.

If left to fester, ideological extremism and race-based nationalism will breed more violence. The country’s goal of regional integration will be sheer nonsense. And for both monks and lay Buddhists, all those longs hours of meditation will be simply wasted.

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