Last week, I sat on a panel of eight students, faculty and religious leaders representing different faith traditions’ views on the subject of religion and politics. More specifically, we discussed how our faiths do or do not determine how we vote.
As a practicing Buddhist, I struggled immensely with this question. At first thought, Buddhism and politics simply do not mix. However, in thinking about the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha of our era, I believe Buddhism does in fact play a role in political engagement. Looking to Siddhartha as a guide, I want to make my claim for why and how American Buddhists might engage in political decision-making, with the election just a week away.
If we recall the story of Siddhartha, the Historical Buddha began his search for enlightenment when he noticed three different men suffering- a sick man, an old man, and a dead man. The Buddha left his comfortable lifestyle as a noble prince to seek answers. He began as an ascetic, living in reclusion and starving his physical body to separate his soul from the body. When he found that unsuccessful, he indulged in business and a lavish lifestyle.
When Siddhartha finally did recognize his path to enlightenment, what we call “The Middle Path,” he walked the line between a personal practice of meditation and engagement with his community. Siddhartha constantly preached to and taught his followers, with the goal to empower every individual to find their own path to enlightenment. His followers, in turn, questioned him, argued with him, even outright disagreed. Siddhartha realized that engagement with others is essential, because in this world, we are all interconnected, and our actions constantly affect those around us.
We Buddhists can engage in political advocacy by remembering that while we might disagree with those who support other parties or those who advocate different platforms, we all want the best for our cities, states, and our country. We can use the Eight-fold path to guide our decision-making, in order to produce productive, rather than harmful, conversations about politics.
So many times, when we engage in a conversation about politics, our aim is to “win,” to convince the other person or persons why we are right, and why they are wrong. This is not productive, because it makes both parties feel as though they must hold fast to their beliefs and cannot be open to considering other viewpoints.
A few points on the Eight-fold path stand out as particularly useful. Using Right Speech, that is, abstaining from divisive, abusive speech, and using polite, affectionate speech, we open the door to productive conversation. In order to perform Right Speech, we must also practice Right Intention, or the ability for our own will to change. We must recognize that our own views can and will change, and this change is productive for our political engagement.
Ultimately, we must practice Right Mindfulness, concentrating our awareness on the information we use to make political decisions, and whether this information is legitimate and accurate. So much political slander and untruth comes out in the time leading to the election, so we must be mindful of the sources we consult to make decisions. In practicing Right Concentration, or meditation, we can bring these practices together to make informed, enlightened decisions, as well as guide others to do the same.
Perhaps Buddhism does not give us concrete guidelines in determining our voting decisions, such as other faiths do in terms of social issues, for example. Buddhism has no one central text. As Buddhists in America, we can blend our faith with political engagement how we see fit, because we only have a framework to guide our behavior. The most important part of our decision-making and engagement is to strive for productive, informative discussion and research- to remember we are all Americans, and we all want the best for our nation.
Photo by beggs, via Flickr Creative Commons.