Let's begin with some background: Buddhism is a 2,500-year-old system of beliefs, one that originated with a man named Siddhartha, now known as the historical Buddha. What the Buddha said is that men and women are susceptible to something called dukkha, an ancient word best translated as dissatisfaction.
Feeling dissatisfied is not an indication that something is necessarily awry with our life -- it is the natural state into which we are born. The problem, Buddhism tells us, is that people register this feeling of dissatisfaction as a void and desperately strive to fill it with possessions, acclaim, love, food, achievement. We believe that gaining these things will make us happy. But they don't, and it is only days, weeks, sometimes mere moments, before we once again feel that empty feeling, and start all over. Ending that cycle is what all the meditation and simplicity and so on are all about.
Now on to the campaign.
Admittedly, none of the candidates have used the word dukkha anywhere near a microphone, and their nasty attack ads do not convey a Buddhist sense of calm. Neither of the two perceived frontrunners is likely to shave his head and don monk's robes -- though, I for one, would pay more attention to the campaign if they did. But then we are not a very Buddhist nation. If we had our collective way, everything would be bigger -- houses would sprout extra rooms, sport utility vehicles would be the size of dump trucks, televisions would fill a wall.
In fact, we have had our way, and our houses, cars, and televisions are massive. The electronic gadgetry in the average family room nowadays rivals the early years of the space program. As if that isn't enough, we eat enormous quantities of food once considered rare delicacies -- salmon, filet mignon, organic arugula. And still we are discontent.
America is one big, fat, unhappy nation, and this fact hasn't been lost on our presidential-wannabes. Take a recent statement from the Bush campaign. "There's a sense out there in America that for years people strived for prosperity, and now they've achieved it but feel incomplete," Mark McKinnon, George W.'s media consultant, explains. "Governor Bush has articulated a message many Americans feel, which is that it's not enough for our wallets to be full if our hearts are empty."
"Leaders who speak to it and come up with new approaches will be received well," Lake promises. Adds an unnamed senior member of the Clinton administration, "There's a kind of inner angst, beyond-materialism kind of dynamic that's emerging."
Combine the Gore campaign's "inner angst, beyond-materialism" message with Bush's "it's not enough that our wallets are full if our hearts are empty," and you've got spokespeople for the two leading candidates stressing inner peace instead of lower taxes.
So what does it mean that both Democratic and Republican strategists are talking this way; that in the middle of one of the nation's longest sustained economic boom periods politicians are saying there's more to life than SUV's and stock options? The two campaigns spend millions trying to spot trends and assess the mood of the American voter. They obviously have concluded that there really is a desire for something more.
I believe this is also the reason that Buddhism has never been more popular in America than it is right now--all sorts of people are asking questions, buying books, attending weekend monastic retreats. Though Buddhists are not the only ones who examine quality of life and the ways by which we measure our satisfaction--the Bible has quite a bit to say about this too-- Buddhism is in many ways better positioned to provide answers to questions of persistent issatisfaction, empty success, endless longing.
The cynic might see politics as usual here--those without ethics exploiting a deeply human yearning. After all, politicians know well that votes are usually won by stoking our desires, by making us feel worse for what we don't have.
But the optimistic Buddhist would note that the emptiness often accompanying our prosperity has at least been recognized, and that it can only be for the good that these issues are raised, these questions asked. Progress comes slowly, the Buddha tells us, but it comes.