Politics and Spirituality

The election season is a tough one for us Buddhists here in the United States – especially when it involves the presidency. Talk about putting our practice to the test! Is there any better time to see how well we can abide in equanimity, or how sincerely we take the practice of loving-kindness? Is there any better time to test the limits of our compassion? You’ve seen the ads. You’ve heard the quotes. Indeed, it’s a tough season – and one that we’d just as soon not have to contend with!

We Buddhists tend to shy away from conflict – generally speaking, anyway.  We much prefer staying focused on living peaceful daily lives – diligently attending to the spiritual path laid out before us – over getting involved with any of the “messiness” of conflict. So maybe the toughest thing about all of this election season nonsense is how it draws us into such unwanted conflict and forces us to deal with all of the “messiness” of life – thereby nudging us toward the self-realization that maybe we’re not quite as far along that spiritual path as we might have thought.

Yes, it’s difficult to speak of the oneness of all things in one moment and then opine about how big an idiot or a liar the “other guy” is in the next! Of course, I see my own schizoidal self staring back at me as I review the recent accumulation of my social media postings: Buddhist blog post here; snide political fact-check commentary there. Here a spiritual quotation pointing towards a new way of seeing reality; there a reposting of a bitingly satirical send-up of one of our candidates for office.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman

Actually, I don’t see this as being as contradictory as it might seem. Buddhist practice is a process of striving to move forward into more wakeful living only to be pulled back again and again by our karma – our habit energy. All we can do is keep striving and keep paying attention so that each time we move forward we move just a little bit farther forward, and each time we step backward it’s not quite so far as the last time, and maybe not so clumsily, either. We’re complex beings – experiencing profound spiritual realizations in one moment, engaging in dualistic mud-wrestling the next.

We also have rather complex motivations for wanting to stay beyond the fray. First of all, most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion, right? They keep us stirred up and ensnared in the realm of samsara. Unfortunately, though, if politics is good for anything at all, it’s good for making us aware of our aversions. To a much lesser degree it makes us aware of our attachments, as well; but, sadly, it almost never makes us aware of our delusions! By the way, one of the attachments that Buddhism specifically warns about is that of attachment to one’s views. Ha! Politics is nothing if it’s not about views! And woe betide the politician who fails to convey appropriately strong attachment to his or her views!

But these are merely doctrinal reasons for our wanting to stay beyond the fray. I actually think there’s a much more psychological reason at play – one that I alluded to above: We fancy ourselves walking down a pristine spiritual path, but this political stuff is just like stepping in so much dog shit along the way! And it’s not the kind of dog shit that we can simply wipe from the bottoms of our shoes that we might be on our merry way once more. No, this dog shit is much more difficult to remove. This is none other than the mess that lurks deep within our psyches – the incongruence of thinking that we’re beyond these feelings when, in fact, we are not. No, far better than involving ourselves in such stinkiness is to avoid any political involvement whatsoever. That way we might appear to exhibit great depth of equanimity (just as long as we keep the world at arm’s length), we might appear to be so loving toward everyone we meet (just as long as we very judiciously choose those with whom we interact), and we might appear to have a great wellspring of compassion (just as long as we’re not reminded of all of those conniving suits out there who are only interested in making the world better for themselves). If discussion turns political, we’ll turn silent – or, better yet, turn tail! And yet…

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing. – Simon Wiesenthal

Oh, yeah…, there’s that pesky bodhisattva vow, isn’t there – the one in which we say that we’re going to eschew enlightenment for our own sake in order that we might “stay behind” for the sake of all beings? But, how can we even begin to claim that we’re serious about such a vow if we won’t even allow ourselves to get politically “messy” from time to time – to add our voice to the others that are pointing out the potential harm to be caused by various policies – to help point out the falsehoods put forth by candidates who would like nothing better than to get elected and begin putting those policies in place? Ah, but it’s such a mess! Where do we begin? Or, perhaps more importantly, where do we stop once we’ve begun? Might we become so fervent in our desire to embody the bodhisattva vow that we lose all perspective and end up doing more harm than good – to ourselves and others!

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. – Thomas Merton

We each must find the right balance – a balance that allows us to remain centered while continuing to be engaged with and in our community and the world. Toward that end, I’ll try to provide a few tips for navigating this contentious political season. Oh, but first let me tell you a story: Back when the Iraq War was brand new to us all, and the world seemed even more black and white than it appears right now, I had the pleasure to be involved with the peace initiative of the local Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers. This work brought me into contact with many extremely caring, dedicated, and deeply spiritual individuals, but I would especially like to mention here, one Tedford P. Lewis. Tedford had been a conscientious objector during World War II. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to have maintained such a position in the face of such overwhelming condemnation? Tedford served time as a smoke-jumper out west due to his anti-war convictions. You might be interested to read about his experiences in the University of Missouri – St. Louis’s oral history collection. Anyway, one day I was lamenting to Tedford how the Iraq War had come between me and some of my oldest friends, how I almost couldn’t stand to be around them anymore because of how toxic our interactions had become – at least for me. I’ll never forget what he said:

Banter with them! – Tedford P. Lewis   

Yes, banter with them. Keep it light..., keep it witty..., keep it on point..., and remain engaged. And so I dedicate this list of tips for navigating this contentious political season, and any other for that matter, to Tedford P. Lewis. I may not embody all of them all of the time, but they represent those higher qualities that I am striving to embody. Here goes:

A Spiritual Practitioner's Tips For Navigating The Political Season

  1. Never stray from those spiritual practices that allow you to remain “centered.”
  2. Do not become attached to any specific outcome.
  3. Engage in that which is right to do simply because it is right to do.
  4. Take comfort in having proceeded in an upstanding manner as opposed to having been “successful.”
  5. Never forget the humanity of those who hold the views that you oppose.
  6. Continue to love the individual even if you despise his or her behavior or views. Or at least try to stay open to loving them!
  7. Keep in mind that ignorance – delusion – is at the heart of all of the destructive human forces that we unleash upon each other and the world.
  8. Keep in mind that it is at least conceivable that someone could hold the views that you oppose after having reflected on them with great depth and sincerity. Hey, it could happen!
  9. Keep in mind that those whose views you oppose might be trying just as hard to maintain respect and love and compassion for YOU as you are for them!
  10. Banter with those whose views you oppose!

In memory of Tedford P. Lewis (1919-2007) 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. – Rumi


Image Credits

All American Buddha, copyright Multielvi, accessed from Flikr via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Good posting, Maku. For me, politics lies at the heart of socially engaged Buddhism. But you make excellent points regarding the inherent tension between politics and the enlightened way. Isn't this the contradiction, though, between hewing to the Righteous Path and ultimately living life to the fullest? Yes, you can live out your Buddhist (or Christian or Jewish or whatever) principles in a secluded monastery but my preference would be to go knee-deep in the shit as you put it. Better, in my mind, to try to live out your principles in society even when, from time to time, you know you will fail to achieve the highest standards you set for yourself.

  2. Thanks, Bob! And thank you for breaking the dry spell with respect to comments! Yes, I am very much committed to what is often called socially engaged Buddhism. My understanding of Buddhism simply does not encompass sitting off by myself while the world falls down around me. I am NOT discounting monasticism, though. Perhaps I'll yet become a monk one day! My thinking on that is as follows: If one is motivated to become a monastic precisely so as to help the world by helping to maintain a silent refuge or to show the way to stillness and peace, then it is good. If one is motivated to become a monastic precisely to get away from it all, to drop out and avoid the pain of the world, then I think it is a self-serving endeavor. As with so many things, intention is everything. It is hard to know even our own intentions, let alone those of another!

    No matter how remote the place where we reside, we are still connected to all things and all of life. My feeling is that the spiritual life demands that we take responsibility for that in the best way that we know how - even if it requires wading knee-deep through the shit, and falling down from time to time... ewww ;D

    I think we very much agree, Bob. Thanks again!


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