The Buddha

I was engaged before I was Buddhist, so now I am an engaged Buddhist.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office in Article V. More famously, the First Amendment forbids government from establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of it.

These provisions ensure that Buddhists are free to practice our beliefs in this hegemonically Christian country.

That government must leave individuals free from restraint in their religious belief and practice does not mean that people may not rely on their religious beliefs when they make decisions about politics and public policy. The case of Kim Davis is instructive. She was the county clerk in Kentucky who went to jail briefly because she refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, claiming that to do so would violate her Christian beliefs. The problem with this position is that she was not acting as a private citizen, she was acting as a public official. The federal judge pointed out that issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples in no way interfered with any specifically religious activity she might wish to engage in, and arguably had the effect of establishing Christianity as the official religion in her government office and imposing it on same sex couples.

You don’t have to vote. Buddhism, on it face, says nothing about civic responsibility. Karma, however, is a strong statement about every individual’s responsibility for their choices. They will come back to you. A lot of people in the United States may well interpret that personal responsibility as an injunction to vote, especially in 2020.

We associate engaged Buddhism primarily with Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He starts his list of training principles with the admonition not to be “bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.” That sounds a lot like clinging, after all, which is the source of our suffering, according to the Buddha. It also sounds a lot like the excessive partisanship that many people bemoan in our politics today.

Since no one can control any concepts, especially Buddhist concepts, engaged Buddhists have long since popped up in pretty much every lineage of Buddhism, which Thich Nhat Hanh is likely happy about, if he knows it.

Engaged Buddhism rests on the basic principle of precious human birth, the idea that to be born a human is a precious opportunity because it combines the reasoning capacity to choose to walk the path to awakening with sufficient disappointments and frustrations to act as goads to do so.

You may deplore politics and the actions you see people take when they engage in explicitly political activity, but Buddhists should not turn away in horror and refuse to, um, engage. The first noble truth is that life is full of disappointments or suffering, depending on how you choose to translate the word the Buddha used. Insofar as some of your disappointments may emanate from politics, trying to ignore politics is not going to make the disappointments go away. As with your own negative thoughts, recognizing them is a much more constructive way to deal with the situation.

Also, since we’re all connected, the more awakened each of us becomes, the more awakened all humans become in the process.

I can’t tell anyone whom to vote for. Well, I could, but I will not. I will offer my own thought process on how I, as a Buddhist, will make that decision.

Buddhism, again, starts with a commitment to the five precepts, do not harm other beings, do not steal, do not lie, do not engage in irresponsible sexual activity, and abstain from intoxicants.

Typically, Buddhists should pay attention only to their own adherence to the precepts and let other people worry about theirs. Elected officials, however, choose to run for office and do so because they want to participate in making and enforcing rules that everyone has to abide by. In doing so, they necessarily invite consideration of their behavior. In deciding if you will or will not vote for a given candidate, you make no judgment of them as persons, only as candidates.

We live with a constant barrage of information about candidates. Deciding which sources of information are reliable is a separate question that Buddhism, on its face, tells us little about. Being aware that some sources are not very reliable is a good place to start.

But, given access to reliable sources of information — they do exist — you have to compare what you know about the candidates to the ethical principles of Buddhism and decide which one comes closer to living up to them.

Then, Buddhists also have certain moral commitments beyond their personal conduct of their lives, extending outward to how we should interact with other beings, which the precepts already implicate. Compassion, generosity, and lovingkindness are tops on that list. The Dalai Lama routinely enjoins us to be kind.

This is very general, but it does offer, I think, a useful framework for thinking about which candidates to vote for. Your choice.

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