i’m just going to say it

Update: As should now be abundantly clear from the comments to this post, not only was my actual point lost in translation, but my point itself was probably moot since Tricycle isn’t your average corporate mag. (Thanks for the tips D.B.P and Rev. Fisher (wow, Danny Fisher reads my blog!?!?))

If I was the sort of blogger who printed retractions or deleted posts, I’d consider it for this one. Lucky for you, I’m not the sort of blogger who prints retractions or deletes posts!

I stand by my endorsement (as Buddhist) of Obama, and I stand by my reading of the sutra passage quoted on Tricycle as leftist in the extreme. Feel free to disregard the rest as the sort of stuff I wrote when I was in much too big of a hurry!

And now on to other things!

More updates! Despite the fact that, as some commenters here pointed out, Tricycle is a non-profit and therefore cannot endorse a political candidate, that hasn’t stopped them from endorsing a political cause. Today on the Editor’s blog, Philip Ryan writes, “If you live in California, vote Yes on Prop 2 to stop animal cruelty.” I don’t know what the laws say about endorsing causes (or even if this was an explicit endorsement), but, well, more food for the fodder, so to speak.

End updates

buddhists for obama (borrowed image)

I’m just going to say it. If you’re a Buddhist, you need to vote for progressive candidates. And this year, you need to vote for Obama.

There’s bit over on the Tircycle Editor’s blog wherein some prominent Western Buddhists urge people to get political, “whatever your political beliefs.” It’s not all that uncommon for Buddhists to be political (I’d argue that it’s impossible for anyone to be apolitical, but that’s just me1). And usually Buddhists try to paint a happy face on their activism. We don’t like to think about Buddhists taking up arms, but they do.

But I’d like to call attention to that phrase, “whatever your political beliefs.” This sort of tempered political activism is out there a lot. A lot of people want to say, “go out and vote!” as if voting is the most important thing you can do. But it isn’t. Voting for the right candidate is the most important thing you can do.

The Tricycle piece opens with a quote from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

When a society comes together and makes decisions in harmony, when it respects its most noble traditions, cares for its most vulnerable members, treats its forests and lands with respect, then it will prosper and not decline…

Read that again. Carefully. Soak it up. Think about it. Reflect. Now let’s parse it.

When a society comes together” Beyond the platitudes of “post-partisianship” or “crossing the isle,” Sen. Obama is deeply concerned with making decisions that benefit the most number of people in this country, even those I disagree with. This is the very definition of coming together.

when it respects its most noble traditions” I know the Buddha here is talking specifically about the Dharma, and I know we could extrapolate from this all religious traditions, but I’d like to extrapolate a little further and include such noble traditions as academia and the sciences, the legal system and Constitutional Law, and even the very fundamentals of our democracy. I don’t often agree with Sam Harris, but I think he’s absolutely right when he points out that voting for someone “you could have a beer with” to run the country is ridiculous. And it in no way respects this country’s noble traditions. Running the country is necessarily a challenging job that requires skill, intelligence, patience, empathy, and sound reason and judgement. Yes, we live in a country where anyone can become president; but that doesn’t mean that anyone should become president.

cares for its most vulnerable membersMcCain wants to make health care benefits taxable. McCain assumes that free enterprise will take care of poverty, homelessness, health care, the disabled, seniors, and wounded Vets. Are you kidding me?

treats its forests and lands with respect” Three words. “Drill, baby, drill.” I repeat. Are you kidding me?

then it will prosper and not decline.” In other words, if you work for progressive causes, the country, and by extension, the planet, will proser.

Taken at its word, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra suggests that Buddhists should be liberals. Let me make this very clear: as a firm denouncer of fundamentalism, I respect everyone’s right to make their own opinions. But I don’t get this politically correct idea that respecting other’s opinions means we shouldn’t assert our own. I’m glad that the Tricycle’s blog tells people to get out the vote. But their own textual support goes much further than that.

Buddhist philosophy asserts the inherit interconnectedness of all living beings, praises charity and compassion toward the weakest members of society, and, in the Ten Duties of the King, extols the virtues of peace and non-violence. From this perspective, the choice is clear. If you’re a Buddhist, you need to vote for Obama.2

There. I said it.


  1. I think it’s impossible to be apolitical because even if you don’t pay any attention to politics, politics still effects your life. More generally, the sociologist in me knows that the body is politicized all the time. Bodies are gendered, for example, such that the very act of a woman choosing to between a dress-suit and a pants-suit is a political act. [ back ]
  2. Eight and twelve years ago, I believed it was more important to vote your conscious, vote your personal political beliefs. And if your political beliefs ran outside the mainstream, then you shouldn’t support a mainstream candidate. And I still believe that — up to a point. That point being when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In other words, when the elected official represents more than my local constituency. In the case of the office of the President, he or she needs to account for all three-hundred million of us (and by extension, all six billion). So I may not agree with everything that Sen. Obama stands for; but I know he do everything he can to account to me and my needs while balancing my needs with the needs of others. Unlike the current administration who has been concerned with attending to the needs of big oil. Period. [ back ]
  3. </ol

13 thoughts on “i’m just going to say it

  1. A couple of questions (even though I’m a Leftist Independent):

    1) What makes people assume that Buddhists must vote for “Progressive” candidates? Are all Buddhists expected to be Left of Center? Do you believe that one could not be a social conservative and be a Buddhist?

    2) What makes the Democratic Party better, even for progressive Buddhists, than say the Green Party (which plenty of my lefty friends are voting for)? Why does “liberal” mean “Democrat” suddenly when the Democrats are a rather centrist party, not true Left?

    3) Do you not think that one could defend the stance that our entire political system is corrupt and that participating in politics, in its current form or perhaps at all, is something against a variety of tenets of Buddhism, which should strive to be both apolitical and to stay far from the mire of corruption?

    Even though I plan to vote for Obama (and hold my nose to do it), I find the assumption that all Buddhists should be progressive leftists who participate in one particular party to be a bit of a stretch or, if not that, then hardly the only reasonable viewpoint of what Buddhists should do.

    Why does everyone seem so enamored of choosing between two bad candidates simply because one isn’t nearly as bad as another. I don’t for a second believe that Obama will be a game changer in American politics. At the end of the day, he’s still a professional politician and a member of the Democratic Party. Our parties have failed. Our system has failed. It is time for real change if there is going to be any real hope for a future for our people.

  2. As an aside, I predict that even if Obama wins, a year from now, we’re still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not Iran as well. Both parties are parties that have supported our wars abroad (regardless of recently found, at least they say they’ve found it, spine on the part of the Democratic Party who has voted to support the wars at every step).

  3. Wow. A lot to chew on there, Al.

    1) What makes “people” assume or what makes me write this post? I think you’re asking the later which I can answer. It is my not so humble opinion that Buddhist ethics (precepts, etc.) tend to be more in line with the ethics of progressives. That’s merely my opinion and as I said in my post, everyone’s got a right to their own opinion. So, yes, I do think that a social conservative could be a Buddhist. More power to you. (Not “you” you, but “you the imagined Buddhist conservative” you.)

    That said, the reason I wrote this post is because I feel like Tricycle should just freakin’ say it. They chose this obviously leftist quote from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and then say “whatever your politics.” And the signatories are all left-wing liberals like us. Jesus, man, take a stand! Endorse a candidate! Magazines and newspapers do it all the time. Why can’t Trike?

    2) Totally agree. But a leftist, Green Party, truly progressive candidate isn’t going to win a national election. You know it and I know it. And when I say “progressive” I don’t mean Obama. I mean progressive. But my ideal, progressive candidate is busy representing the lucky folks of Ohio. So, what’reya gonna do? (And voting for a Green in California is a perfectly acceptable response.)

    3) As for this point and your second comment, I agree and disagree. Yes, Obama’s change isn’t real change. We’re still going to be at war. And like I said, there’s things he says and stands for that I disagree with. And, like I said, I don’t really think that all Buddhists must be leftists; I’m merely stating my opinion and taking a stand to show that Buddhists can do that even though Tricycle didn’t.

    As for the system…. well, quite frankly, even though I agree in theory that the system is totally screwed, it’s the one we’ve got. As far as I can tell, we can do one of three things in relation to it: (1) keep participating within the system, (2) actively seek to overthrow it through some sort of revolution, or (3) reject it and live in a cabin in the woods writing manifestos. I think all three responses have pluses and minus. I choose the first one because I get something out of participating in the system. I know full well that I give up certain things in exchange for those benefits. And that’s my choice.

    Frankly, like I said in my post, I think it’s impossible to be apolitical. But that’s another story.

    Lastly, let me pose this little brain teaser. If I choose option two up there, wouldn’t I have to ask the question, “what possible harm will that bring to other sentient beings?” I think about the first Matrix movie a lot. In it, Morpheus tells Neo that people plugged into the system are still part of that system and therefore are a threat. He uses this as a justification for killing them. Think about Neo and Trinity in the lobby at the end of the film. I watch that scene and think to myself, you know, yeah, they’re still in the system, but blowing them away is still killing them. They’re in the system, so they’re just a bunch of blue-collar slobs with government jobs, minding their own business. And even if all that’s a computer-generated illusion, they’re still people, they’re still sentient beings, and Neo and Trinity just freakin’ murdered all of them. So, as a Buddhist, I can’t help but think, there must be a way to overthrow the system without causing more suffering in the process.

    (p.s., I still like the Matrix. In spite of all that!)

  4. I appreciate your comment that “voting for the right candidate is the most important thing you can do.” But I have to somewhat (though not completely) disagree. I have many family members who came to the US fleeing conflicts in Southeast Asia where they fought and bled for political freedoms (my father included), which more often than not they lost. It is a beautiful privilege to simply be able to learn about a candidate and cast a vote. When I vote, I not only exercise this right, I also honor my family members who sacrificed so much for this simple freedom.

    Of course, how best to take advantage of this right is another matter altogether…

  5. Out of curiosity:

    What if someone felt that Buddhism informed them that the Democrats weren’t either promoting or producing enough, and decided to vote Green or Socialist?

  6. Added – I know you mentioned above the issue of electability, but that then goes to how one should balance pragmatism with idealism. To clarify – when and to what extend should a Buddhist “bend” to get something rather than continue to hold out for something more because what is being offered just is not acceptable. To use a hypothetical example, would it be OK to vote for a party offering to allow for women to count as “half a man” in civil affair as opposed to “one quarter” or should a Buddhist stick resolutely to the conviction of true equality?

  7. Arunlikhati, thanks for that perspective. Needed to hear that.

    As for the rest, in re-thinking this post, I think I made one point (a vote for Obama) too strong and my real point (that there ain’t nothin; wrong with taking a stand) not strong enough.

    So. In response to tinythinker, absolutely. My point was really that if you read Buddhist ethics in such a way that you believe they support progressive (socialist sense of the word) causes, then take a stand and vote for candidates who support those ideals. If you think that means you must vote Green, more power to you.

    The pragmatism vs. idealism issue is a real one. An important one. And all I can say is that I’ve come to believe that any elected official should be responsible to all the people that office is charged with representing. In the case of the President or members of the Senate, that ain’t easy because they necessarily represent people who I vehemently disagree with. So, logically, I have to accept that if my ideal, leftist, socialist candidate were elected President, s/he might enact legislation that would not represent people who do not share my values. After all, even though Still President Bush represents me, he’s done all sorts of things that I disagree with.

    So, I’m stuck. Do I want a President who enacts all the leftist changes I think we need, to hell with people who disagree with me (and end up feeling like a fundamentalist)? Or do I want a President who attempts to balance my leftist needs with the needs of right-wing nut-jobs? It’s a tough decision and makes national elections pretty much suck. As Al pointed out, it’s the system we’ve got, and the system’s screwed. We can either live with it or do away with it. And I’m not sure which is the better option.

  8. I understand what you wanted to do in terms of the post being cited, I was just interested in how your reasoning would play out.

    Yes, the conundrum is interesting. On the one hand, it is unreasonable to expect an ideal candidate. Which brings up the subtler point – should one’s vote be about character and experience (emphasizing leadership over issues), about a broader perspective or ideology (emphasizing issues over leadership), or about a specific issue or narrow group of issues of urgency. The latter allows one to make a really strong stand on principle without being unrealistic in expecting to “get it all”. This I think explains why people may seem to vote against some of their own interests.

    An example of voters wanting to tackle issues one at a time includes abortion. Many people who “value life” vote for candidates who cut health care and social support and start wars because those candidates are pro-life. They vote this way even though they also care about the other topics as well. Many Catholics come to mind. If they choose to potentially affect more areas important to protecting and enhancing life by voting “liberal”, they are giving up on what they see as another immense moral and humanitarian injustice. If they vote “conservative”, they are fighting one perceived injustice but falling down on the others.

    I think this kind of conflict (though not necessarily that issue) is related to the issue of whether Buddhists should vote for a liberal party or candidate. You appear to be taking the “doing the most for the most issues” approach, which is fine, but others may come to a different conclusion.

  9. I’m reminded of an interview with Bill Maher I say the other day wherein he said that Republicans are always very good at rallying behind their candidate and voting for whoever the Party puts up even if many of them don’t actually like the candidate in question. On the other hand, Democrats are lousy at this.

    I want to believe that it’s because those of us on the left are more inclined to be free-, individual-, critical-thinkers. But maybe that’s just me!

    At any rate, whenever I post something about Obama, it’s interesting how many of my readers jump at the chance to talk about Obama and the Democrats and all these very important issues. And of course all this debate is a very fine, a very good thing. And at the same time seems to support Maher’s thesis.

    At any rate, I’ll say no more about that.

  10. “Jesus, man, take a stand! Endorse a candidate! Magazines and newspapers do it all the time. Why can’t Trike?”

    Because they’re a 501(c)3 organization, whereas the newspapers and magazines you’re thinking of are for-profit enterprises. It is illegal for them to endorse a specific party or candidate. If they come out and endorse explicitly, Bush’s government cronies will be knocking on the door the very next day with warrants to raid their bank accounts and/or force them to stop publishing.

  11. Just to say a bit more on DBP’s point: Yes, it would be illegal for Tricycle to endorse a candidate or serve as a host site for the endorsements of others because of their 501(c)3 status. And the letter-writers, as representatives/clergy in their own 501(c)3 organizations, can’t do it either. The law specifically prohibits writing letters of endorsement on paper with the letterhead of the organization (I imagine official blog’s count), distribution of campaign literature, endorsing candidates inside the organization (like from the pulpit), display of campaign signs on organization property, and other activities that would indicate a party affiliation or endorsement. However, those involved with 501(c)3 organizations (including clergy) can and may endorse candidates or work for campaigns on their own time as individual citizens, but not as representatives of their organization. For more, check out http://projectfairplay.org/.

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