I got the chance to see the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? this weekend, about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. It was great. Now, check out the article I wrote a little while ago.
The Dharma Is ALWAYS Political
By Ethan Nichtern
Back in the summer of 2004 I was attending a two-week group meditation retreat. During a discussion group in the midst of the retreat, news of the outside world reached us. John Kerry had chosen Edwards as his running mate the day before. On a long group retreat, getting news from the real world is like being handed a piece of chocolate after you’ve forgotten that you have taste buds.

It was as if someone had flipped a switch. The discussion quickly turned to politics, to social issues, to the wide world beyond the retreat. Where we’d been talking about individual habits and thought patterns, now we were reflecting on the structure of systems, the vast zone of collective karma. We spoke of the war, the media, the environment. The sudden burst of energy was palpable, fueled by the inspiration that flows when the hard-won lessons from one’s inner cultivation finally become relevant to the world we all share. For a few minutes, we felt liberated.
All of us, that is, except for one man, whose face seemed strained and tight. This was surprising, because for the rest of the retreat this man had been incredibly loose and generous, rarely doing anything other than smiling. Now, though, he was pissed. “I didn’t know I was being recruited for a political action group!”
His words had a simple effect. Nobody was willing to cause (or bear) his discomfort. Our collective response was unstated but crystal clear: Don’t alienate anyone. We are a group. We practice compassion by making everyone feel safe and nurtured. And so the conversation died. A dozen strong were outvoted—silently but summarily—by one lone dissenter.
It’s fair to say that— within contemplative communities—discourse about specific social and political issues has typically been met with a general unease. This discomfort even extends to many people who feel deeply passionate about social issues in their personal lives, but feel wary about bringing that discourse into the conversations and interactions that occur within their meditation community. A general fear of appropriateness abounds, coming from a compassionate intention not to alienate those who don’t share our political inclinations.
This uneasiness seems to hinge on a worldview that sees participation in political and social issues as a personal choice. Some people choose to be political, some people don’t, this worldview claims. No matter what choice they make, the inner work of meditation can benefit them. So please, let’s not alienate those who have chosen differently from us. From this point of view, keeping the context of our meditation practice personal and apolitical seems to be the most compassionate and inclusive thing to do. Everyone can work on personal issues, and no one feels alienated. In the various training programs I attended to become a teacher of meditation, we were warned multiple times against using too many political or societal examples in lectures and discussions. There is only one little problem: the view that participation in social and political issues is a matter of personal choice is based on a complete and utter fallacy.
One could argue that the moral imperatives arising from the truth of interdependence – that nothing happens in a vacuum —will necessarily lead us as meditators to certain stances on social issues. One could argue that a growing awareness of oneself as part of a much larger network of sentiency would automatically lead to a deep concern about the climate crisis and lack of universal healthcare. One could argue that Buddhism’s unequivocal instructions on the destructiveness of violence would lead us to constantly challenge the ever-expanding military industrial complex and a heroin-like addiction to war without end. One could argue that the inner meditative work we do—consistently noticing our own internal biases—leads one to a particular perspective over racial, gender, and lifestyle biases in our economic and judicial systems. One could even directly quote Buddhist scripture, like the Kutadanta Sutta, in which a king is instructed that the solution to a crime epidemic in his country is not further incarceration, but a radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity. This piece of Buddhist scripture might lead one to be deeply disturbed by our prison-industrial complex, as well as the insanities of wealth inequality on Planet Earth. One could argue that these various insights and instructions knit together to form a political platform (Call us the “Interdependence” Party), and that we as meditators and citizens of representative democracy should choose representative leaders whose actions best embody this platform. One could argue all this, and they would have my vote, as well as my help organizing the party. But that’s not what I’m arguinghere. What I’m arguing is this: If you think it’s ever possible not to vote, then you’re dead wrong.
We could take a cue from postmodern thought on the nature of discourse. The postmodernists exposed the fallacy that it’s possible to stand outside a conversation passively, without implicitly taking a side in the discussion, without empowering a particular narrative or viewpoint. Silence doesn’t equal nonparticipation; silence is a very specific kind of participation. Deeming a discussion inappropriate or shutting down dialogue actually empowers a side in the debate. By definition, the viewpoint that silence and discomfort empower is the conservative one. In the most general sense, conservativism is about the stability and maintenance of any system’s status quo. The only chance for change to result (the “progress” in progressive) is in dialogue. If the conversation never happens, or only happens in hushed voices constantly afraid that the conversation might be deemed inappropriate (or worse, unpatriotic), or if dialogue only occurs on constrictive and prefabricated terms, then the status quo wins every time. Nonparticipation is always a vote – a vote for the status quo.
With apologies to all the minor parties, there are actually three major political parties in the United States. The Republicans and the Democrats remain locked in a recurrent battle to determine who will become the 2nd most powerful political party in America. Each of these parties controls roughly 25% of the vote. Far more powerful than either Donkeys or Elephants, however, is the Apathy Party, composed of the 50% of eligible voters who perennially fall prey to the propagandized myth that it’s possible to stand INdependent, somehow outside the collective discourse. The size and general disposition of this Apathy Party have determined the outcome of every election and the resolution of every social debate since our democracy began. Having no human candidates of their own, the Apathetics throw their votes to the candidates with whom apathy is most closely aligned. It’s a generally documented (though not universal) principle that conservative candidates win elections with lower voter turnout. Often times an Apathetic throws her support unwittingly to a true conservative – someone whose agenda is really about preserving the status quo. Even worse, Apathetics often cast their votes for radical candidates posing as true conservatives (such as the current US administration) who press through an unfair agenda that would never have a chance at popular success without such an overwhelming wave of support from the Apathy Party.
It’s not enough to talk about compassion as care and nurturing for the suffering of other individual beings. For ours to be a meaningful discussion of compassion, we must discuss structural suffering caused by systems of collective karma, because the suffering of individuals can never be untangled from the system in which individuals participate. In democratic society, this examination of systems means we have an inescapable responsibility to participate politically, and therefore an inescapable responsibility to enter political discourse. If we aren’t willing to talk about our meditation practice as it connects to the systems we all co-create and live within, then what are we even talking about? Not much at all.
Beyond a participation in the formal political process or engagement in any particular issue, our meditation practice leads us to a much deeper and more pervasive definition of what it means to vote.
As meditators, we become intimately and systematically aware of the link between our mental conditioning and the actions that bloom from our state of mind. We also become aware of the complex and subtle effects of those actions on ourselves and the collective communities in which we live. So any time we act with interdependence in mind, we are living a political choice. Voting for someone to represent us and make choices for us is merely an indirect (and often skewed or even perverted) extension of the political choices implied by our way of living day in and day out. It even transcends the idea of voting with our feet or voting with our dollars. Moment by moment, we are each voting with our minds, casting ballots for the way we would like our lives and our communities to manifest. This thing called Earth is just the democratic tally of the results of billions of mental votes. Of course, it’s interesting in democratic societies that some people’s votes seem to count much more than others. But then again, the blatant equalities of our system might just be due to the influence of a strong lobby – the Apathy lobby.
No matter what your leanings in the political arena one thing is clear. If you think it’s possible not to get involved, then guess what.
You just did.
And the status quo loves you for it.
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