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Buddhists Reflect on the US Midterm Elections

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In the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential elections, a number of Buddhists in North America began reflecting on the role and nature of Buddhism in their political choices. This year, once again, Buddhists have engaged with the same questions, this time two years into what was for most an unexpected Trump presidency and a number of disruptions to life as they knew it, from the proposed Muslim ban to the separation and detention of immigrant children at the southern border of the United States. 

Buddhists are again asking: is Buddhism a conservative force, aligning with community-centered morality and family values? Or is it liberal, aligned with peace activism and progressive social ideals? Or perhaps neither? Perhaps Buddhism has no inherent political direction and can take on the social norms of whoever practices it. Another option is that Buddhism offers a political direction of its own, outside of the contemporary Western paradigm of “left” and “right.”

As part of our coverage of the election, Buddhistdoor Global spoke with three Buddhist leaders and teachers from the US: Rev. Patti Nakai from the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, Rev. Daigan Gaither, a San Francisco-based Soto Zen Buddhist priest and hospice worker, and Katie Loncke, co-director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Buddhistdoor Global: In looking at the results of the midterm elections do you feel that America has reached a turning point in its history?

Rev. Patti Nakai: One aspect of the midterm election results that concerns me is the report that the winning candidates to Congress are farther from the political “center” than their predecessors. I used to say that my temple’s membership is politically diverse, but now I may have to say it’s politically divided. (Those of you in “convert” groups may think that all Buddhists are politically liberal, but in Asian American congregations, many members are conservative, across all age groups.) 

Already since the 2016 elections I can’t comment on politics in my weekly Dharma talks without one side or the other complaining. All I can do is continue to emphasize Buddhist values such as equally honoring all beings and being generous in helping those in need, and then leave it up to individuals to act out those values as they interpret them.

Rev. Patti Nakai
Rev. Patti Nakai

Rev. Daigan Gaither: I don’t like to use phrases like “turning point”—it seems a bit pedantic and since everything is constantly changing, we are always at a turning point. That said, I think it was amazing how well we as citizens showed up. We saw race after race after race won by women, and so many of those were women of color. To me this is such an amazing thing and it does give me hope. I saw so many grassroots movements and had friends who worked so hard to get the vote out. I saw engagement in the process like I haven’t seen in a long time. 

Katie Loncke: This election brought many exciting firsts, especially among women of color elected to office, as well as the monumental restoration of voting rights to 1.4 million people with felonies in the state of Florida. Congratulations to everyone who achieved these beautiful victories!

And yet, there is much more work to do before we can truly turn the tide. This reminds me of what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi famously said to his students: “Each of you is perfect as you are . . . and you can use a little improvement.”

Spiritual practice gives us the extraordinary yet natural power to fully appreciate the present moment, while also working for change. In this way, we can relax and still give our best effort toward our true dreams. This requires a long-game perspective.

So when will we reach a turning point in US history?

When we decolonize and return huge swaths of stolen indigenous land.

When we engage in real reparations with the descendants of African peoples enslaved to build the US economy. 

When we meaningfully fulfill human rights to housing, food, education, and holistic healthcare for people of all genders, bodies, and birthplaces

When we face the devastating results of ecocide.

And when we generally reckon with the toxic, systemic forms of “all our ancient twisted karma”—or, to borrow from bell hooks, when we heal white-supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy, colonization, and imperialism.

And of course, from a Buddhist Peace Fellowship standpoint, this work is internal as much as it is external. So we will reach a turning point when a critical mass of Americans find the courage to relinquish what my friend Aaron Goggans calls “the logic of domination.”

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Rev. Daigan Gaither
Rev. Daigan Gaither

When we warmly and bravely embody paradoxes of non-dualism.

When we embrace both Self and Other, no longer needing to feed fear and insecurity. 

When we let go of hero and enemy, gain and loss, conquerer and spoils.

We will reach a turning point when we collectively proclaim that all sentient beings are worthy of respect, love, and apology for harms committed intentionally or unintentionally. Again, we have a ways to go to reach such a turning point, but we will joyfully persist, and never give up!

BDG: Based on the election results, are you feeling hopeful?

PN: One result of the election I am happy to see is that more women from various ethnic groups were elected. Even though our temple, like many “immigrant Buddhism” groups, is still saddled with patriarchal views of women, it might help my members to take more seriously me and other women teachers as legitimate leaders when our nation has more female voices speaking up with the power to direct government policies.

BDG: How has politics affected your Buddhist practice in the last couple years and leading up to this election? 

DG: Buddhist practice is my life. My life is political. I am queer, I am disabled, I am committed to justice and undoing patriarchy and racism. So Buddhist practice is political, and politics are Buddhist practice. This has been true since I found myself in the basement of an apartment building back in 1995.

KL: More consistency and discipline, and also more singing, chanting, humming, listening to the wisdom of the body and not just the thoughts of the mind. 

It’s different for everyone, but I myself have found that Buddhist practice offers me more internal steadiness, spaciousness, and deliberate, defiant joy in the face of two years of intense collective trauma.

I believe that these are the times our practice is made for.

BDG: Do you foresee any changes to your personal approach to teaching and practice in the next couple years? 

DG: My teaching tends to focus on justice and is a bit activist in nature, so I don’t imagine it will change. Maybe I just become more vocal. We saw today what happens when folks get involved. We lost some big races, but even in those, we got close enough that the power structures can’t think that we are still asleep.

KL: As we seek to help all beings escape the samsaric cycle of suffering, birth, and death, we must also seek to wean ourselves and all beings from the suffering cycle of election addiction! I say this laughingly, cheerfully, lovingly, humbly, and with profound respect and gratitude for all those who work for change in the electoral sphere—after all, many of my ancestors were barred from voting, and many people today, both domestically and across the globe, are robbed of the right. It is significant. And yet, as Black US feminist organizer Charlene Carruthers encourages us (among many, many other radical changemakers), we must also stay attuned to larger strategies beyond elections. (Truthout)

Katie Loncke
Katie Loncke

Here’s the thing: just as we tend to become engrossed with the recurring stories in our own minds—stories that offer us some semblance of control, cognitive truth, or progress, but which actually hinder our awakening or happiness—we are similarly in danger of becoming addicted to the drama of election cycles, while ignoring the larger geologic, political, and spiritual scales on which oppression and liberation actually occur. 

This feels especially true in the occupied, decolonizing US, because many of us born and raised here are enculturated into mainstream US exceptionalism, thinking the US is all that matters and basically trained to ignore what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Truly liberatory change—both spiritual and political—actually happens over a much broader sphere than one nation’s borders, and also over a much longer period. We’re talking the scale of bodhisattva vows! We’re talking lifetimes, generations upon generations, in a beautiful flowing river of wise effort to end suffering. And while we should of course pursue short-term goals—including Blocking harm and Building better solutions—we at Buddhist Peace Fellowship have a special spiritual-political responsibility to remind ourselves and our movements of the bigger picture of Being.

So yes, in the next couple years, within the Block-Build-Be framework we use toward spiritual and political liberation, I foresee us staying strong on the Block and Build while turning up the volume on Being, which in Buddhism is essentially the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and other elements of the path to awakening that are common to all lineages.

This path of wisdom and compassion gives us the strength to live on these long timescales, embracing a crucial and under-appreciated part of our collective quest to awaken. In 2020 and beyond, we seek freedom from two things: suffering, and systems of domination. 

See more

Rev. Patti Nakai (Resident Minister) (The Buddhist Temple of Chicago)
Rev. Daigan Gaither (Queer Dharma)
Katie Loncke: Block Build Be (Crowdrise)
Before the Midterms, Five Questions for the Political Left (Truthout)

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