Before going on I want to mention the new link I put up about Zen books that don’t suck. People keep asking me about this. So here you go.

While I was up north for Thanksgiving I stopped by the Berkeley Zen Center where my friend Greg Fain, who kindly let me stay in his pad while I was up there, was giving the weekly Dharma talk. His talk was, among other things, about the issue of speaking about politics from the “pulpit” — if we can use that word to describe the seat from which Buddhist teachers deliver their talks.

I was a little worried because I knew that Greg had spent some time in Nevada getting out the vote on behalf of a certain candidate I won’t name here. And this was, after all, the People’s Republic of Berkeley. As some of you must have noticed by now I’m pretty down on the idea of Buddhism being used as a pretext for pushing liberal politics and on the widespread assumption that anyone who is a Buddhist must, of course, be at the very least a Democrat if not someone of a much more left-leaning political mindset. While I didn’t really imagine Greg would use his Dharma talk as a campaign platform, especially after the election was finished, I did fear for the worst.

I should have had more faith! Greg’s talk was a very good one about how a Dharma talk should never be a platform for political campaigning. He related a story about how he was giving a talk in Nevada (I think). Before he went on, the head of the temple warned him, “Don’t talk about politics here! This group is evenly divided between ‘red state’ people and ‘blue state’ people.” Greg said he hadn’t planned to get political but that he appreciated the advice. He said he thought we as Buddhist teachers should always assume our audience is half ‘red state’ (conservatives, for those of you reading this outside the USA) and half ‘blue state’ (liberals). I’d take that further myself. I don’t even assume my audience cares about or even knows much about America’s politics. A decade in Japan taught me a lot about just how trivial American politics really are to people who don’t live here.

Back on October 25th, my hero, Gene Simmons, bassist of the rock band KISS, posted this on his website:

Ok, folks. Everyone is so touchy about the forthcoming election. And for the record, I don’t believe any celebrity should be using their bully pulpit to coerce their fans to vote either way. I refuse to tell anyone what my political leanings are. I agree with both parties on certain issues and strongly disagree with both candidates on other issues. VOTE FOR EITHER CANDIDATE, but vote.

Yet around the same time someone sent me a video of some Zen teacher giving his Dharma talk in an Obama T-shirt. It’s truly pathetic when Zen teachers aren’t even as enlightened as Gene Simmons on such matters. I don’t pay enough attention to the Zen scene to know whether there are more teachers like Greg or more teachers like that guy who thought his Dharma talk was an appropriate place to plug his favorite candidate.

We Buddhist teachers must never assume that our political views are one and the same as the Dharma, nor should we try and influence the people who listen to us on how to vote.

Greg talked about social justice, about the recently passed California Proposition 9 (not 8!) and how it affected the inmates he teaches at San Quentin prison. He talked about the uncomfortable mood at a post election party he attended and how it was all “We won and they lost!” I could certainly feel that myself driving through Los Angeles on the night of November 4th. There was such a tremendous buzz of negative energy in the air that I wanted to get off the road as quickly as possible. Ironically most of those responsible for that nearly palpable wave of horrible negativity almost certainly believed it was nothing but positivity (actually the two are the same, ultimately) (and just by the way, I don’t mean that I somehow psychically sensed this stuff. There was all kinds of shouting and hooting and horns honking and vehicles swerving like the drivers were drunk) .

Greg also talked about engaged Buddhism. All Buddhism, he said (quoting someone I can’t remember), is “engaged Buddhism.” I think this is important. How do you work most effectively for social justice? You do zazen practice every day. You. Not someone else. Every day. Not just when your sitting group meets. This is where the real work for social justice happens. Without it you’re just making noise.

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

85 Responses

Page 2 of 2
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 9:50 am |

    “it was relief that someone with real leadership skills, who has the power to inspire people and get things done, will be taking the reins in January.”

    How would many of us feel if the U.S. were (democratically) taken over by islamic extremists for 8 years and then they were defeated? That is how I felt on election night.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 9:58 am |

    I feel like that on my husband’s bowling night.

  3. Jules
    Jules December 2, 2008 at 10:18 am |

    jamal wrote: Jules, I understand your point. But I’m not sure it would be correct to call MLK a great hype artist. His message was much more than hype.

    Of course his message was much more than hype. That’s my whole point. Just because there was a great deal of substance beneath the hype in MLK’s case doesn’t mean there was no hype. And, Brad, just because there is hype doesn’t mean there’s no substance beneath it.

  4. ug krishnamurti
    ug krishnamurti December 2, 2008 at 10:54 am |

    “Traditional values and the military might of America cannot save anyone. You have grown up with the sense that America is the center of the world. You were better at everything. Today the glory is gone; you are an also-ran. You are another England! This is a blot to your national image. You are being overtaken by others. I am as terrified if the U.S. gets dumped from its throne as you will be; what you would do is anybody’s guess…. The Russian revolution is a total failure. That revolution is only a revaluation of a value system. They replaced one system with another system of values. Which system will blow up the world? It matters not virtually who is going to blow up the world. The solutions to the world problems do not rest with your bureaucrats or the big boys. They are muddle-headed and low-grade morons; so are the other leaders of mankind. You can’t get rid of them. You have delegated your power to them, placed them in the seats of power, and handed over the most destructive weapons to them. They are the defense that turned against you.”

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 12:50 pm |

    “Seems to me that everyone is huffing and puffing about relatively minor stuff. Which is expected on the internet, but still…”

    Especially Brad.

  6. Stuart
    Stuart December 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm |

    Anonymous said…
    “All Buddhism is engaged buddhism” this is a disturbing totality.

    It doesn’t disturb me. The point I see is that we’re always connected to the whole world. Each of us was born into a family, each of us has made relationships of some sort during our lives.

    Everything we do radiates out to affect these relationships, rippling in concentric circles to more and more beings. If I decide to spend a year meditating as a hermit in the woods, people who know me will wonder about it, question why I’m devoting this effort to attending to my own thinking. Even then, I’m “engaged” with the world.

    If everyone in the market is already selling apples, it makes sense for me to offer oranges. The world has no shortage of people debating how to gain and use power, how to control what other people do (i.e., “politics”). It’s not wrong, but it’s not everything. It’s fine to balance out all those voices by suggesting that we can also “engage” with the world by attending to our own moment-to-moment thinking and actions.


  7. Alan A
    Alan A December 2, 2008 at 2:16 pm |

    Blake wrote:

    “Bambam, there is a difference between individuals speaking out against something they believe to be an injustice and a leader of a institution telling people that they should believe an injustice has occurred. People can make that decision for themselves. People can protest all they want. But no leader should usurp that personal responsibility by telling or appearing to tell people what they should or shouldn’t believe or how they should or shouldn’t react to a situation.”

    So Dr. King was in the wrong?

  8. Harry
    Harry December 2, 2008 at 3:14 pm |

    Sure, all things are connected.

    Maybe church and state shouldn’t be so connected… Any church.

    Look what happened to Tibet under Buddhist rule.

    I’ll see you all in sombody’s hell for entertaining the mere thought that I’m a monkeyboy!



  9. Harry
    Harry December 2, 2008 at 3:21 pm |

    As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
    By giving you no time instead of it all
    Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
    A working class Buddhist is something to be
    A working class Buddhist is something to be

    They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
    They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
    Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
    A working class Buddhist is something to be
    A working class Buddhist is something to be

    When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years
    Then they expect you to pick a career
    When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
    A working class Buddhist is something to be
    A working class Buddhist is something to be

    Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
    And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
    But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
    A working class Buddhist is something to be
    A working class Buddhist is something to be

    There’s room at the top they are telling you still
    But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
    If you want to be like the folks on the hill
    A working class Buddhist is something to be
    A working class Buddhist is something to be

    If you want to be a hero well just follow me
    If you want to be a hero well just follow me

  10. Wolf
    Wolf December 2, 2008 at 6:12 pm |

    Jundo says pretty much I actually wanted to say. He just does it much better and to the point. At a certain level we can drop it all, but in order to live we can’t escape having opinions.

    I’d even add a little (even if I should repeat myself). Since politics are as much part of our lives as our daily dishwashing, one should be able to talk about them (even in a Dharma talk). They shouldn’t take the center in practice sessions, I absolutley agree.
    But if one is totally fixed on one kind of political ideology and does take any kind of comment on that one as offensive, it might be reasonable to slightly prod that spot (possibly better in private than at a dharma talk, but if half the audience has that problem… well…). That goes in both directions.

    And one more thing. If we should be totally aware, while washing our dishes, shouldn’t we also take the same care, when choosing our opinions and our worldview?
    So if a Buddhist should preach about what is right and wrong Buddhism, right and wrong practice (yes Brad, you do that ;)), he should also be able to talk about political opinions of his and their relationship to Buddhist teachings, since he should devote the same care to choosing them, as he does to his daily practice. If he doesn’t he’s a dipshit (yes, I stole that one….)

    Most of the Lefties have good reasons for the connection between left and Buddhism. And be it only that most of them are not (I hope) of the opinion that they posess the absolute and last truth in what they say and believe.
    On the political right it is very often different. But the newborn christian right only turns to Buddhism in very small numbers anyway…

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 7:09 pm |

    jules said “And, Brad, just because there is hype doesn’t mean there’s no substance beneath it.”

    nor does it mean there is substance

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 7:10 pm |

    by the way, i was talking about brad’s lack of substance in the last post, not MLK

  13. pebbles
    pebbles December 2, 2008 at 9:21 pm |

    False pretenses are just that, false petenses. U.S invaded Iraq for resources and massive middle-class taxpayer funded construction projects resulting from massive middle-class taxpayer funded bombing, for various corporations. The president-elect never confronted that and will insure it’s continuance.There’s really not that much to teach anyway. Engagement is non-engagement. BTW, has anyone seen Gene Simmons’ investment portfolios?

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 11:25 pm |

    seems a lot of folks practice boo-hoo dism.
    I carry extra kleenex

  15. nyah!
    nyah! December 3, 2008 at 12:00 am |

    i’m more buddhist than thou

  16. Dharma Kombat
    Dharma Kombat December 3, 2008 at 12:02 am |


  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 3, 2008 at 2:35 am |

    You stayed in a pad in Berkely? I haven’t done that since I was a teenager. Far-out man.

  18. Traci S.
    Traci S. December 3, 2008 at 6:15 am |

    Totally off the topic of politics, but rather on the topic of “Zen Books that Don’t Suck” (thanks for posting that by the way):

    What about adding Steve Hagen’s book, “Buddhism Plain and Simple”, to your list? I read his book and your first book back-to-back and they really seemed to come from the same place. (i.e. they made tons of sense!)

  19. Mumon
    Mumon December 3, 2008 at 7:12 am |


    Are you familiar with the concepts of “concern trolls” and “purity trolls?”

    What Bambam said.

    Seriously, the idea that “good people can disagree” about policies that will or will not impoverish, poison, cripple, maim and kill millions and will see other millions uselessly suffer is abominable itself.

    You can’t remain neutral when the stakes are so stark, and it’s immature to pretend otherwise.

  20. oxeye
    oxeye December 3, 2008 at 8:22 am |

    I don’t think Brad is talking about remaining neutral. I think he is talking about the way in which we act.

    Good people Can disagree about causes, and solutions can be reached from different directions if people don’t become polarized and locked into their beliefs and if they really want to help each other.

    Problems get solved when folks don’t become too attached to what they believe is the Only solution.

  21. Mumon
    Mumon December 3, 2008 at 11:18 am |


    This is where the self-referentiality argument gets invoked. 😉

    solutions can be reached from different directions if people don’t become polarized

    Look, one side had a candidate which, uh, was involved with folks doing exorcisms, who’d think people like you are demonic, and that’s the nice stuff.

    I.e., the other direction was already polarized, and to the degree that a straw-man invocation of Godwin’s law was moot.

    I was remarking with a colleague last night how while we used to say Bush was the worst president of our lifetime, we used to say that before the current financial crisis and the scandals of the financial bailout became known (Start here if you’ve got 8 hours or more).

    With the recent financial crisis though, it seems Bush= worst(Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Buchanan, McKinley, …) and is on track to be not only the worst president of the past 110 years, but is perhaps really, really, objectively the worst president in history, and if not, well, he’s up there with Buchanan, and to say he’s better than the guy who saw the Union dissolve over slavery ain’t saying a whole lot.

    It’s objectively that bad, and no, there’s no non-dual way of conjuring it away.

  22. Steve
    Steve December 3, 2008 at 12:56 pm |

    What is a political view? If the teacher encourages people to be compassionate, to give to the needy and poor, to give to charities, is that not political? Is that Buddhist? If so, then why rule out encouraging you to write your congress person to support a bill for welfare, workfare, health care, extending unemployment benefits? Isn’t that compassionate? (Maybe it isn’t).

    Do we draw the line at endorsing particular candidates? What if one candidate intends to take a strict interpretation of the US Constitution as favoring freedom of Christian religion, then it’ll be okay? What if an ordinance seeks to keep “cults” from getting tax exempt status (“cults” being non-Christian religions)?

    Let’s go the other way. If a Zen master “blesses” a gay “marriage”, is that political? Hell, in the mostly Christian US, zazen is a political statement.

    In Buddhism in general, I see two kinds of responses to these kinds of things. First, a sort of karmic fatalism. “He’s poor. That’s his karma. Not my problem.” Conservatives really like this.

    In the West, there is a strong sense of idiot compassion, “He’s poor. Here, take $20 and my sandals.” Liberals really like this.

    We need to steer a course between karmic fatalism and idiot compassion. This is only to say, we, students and teachers, need to exercise good judgment….but especially students. As far as I know, there is no concept of “papal infallibility” with respect to Zen teachers. (I leave the reader to consider whether such a thing applies to the Vajrayana tradition).

    Finally, I take issue with Gene’s statement. His statement is not neutral. He says, “vote for either candidate but vote.” First, this implies that voting does make a difference. There are those who believe that we have one party with two heads in this country and so, Gene is making a political statement, he’s saying “give credibility to a system where the president can be elected without getting more votes than his opponent.” or “give credibility to a system where you are continually picking from the wrost of two evils but the rich always get richer.”

    Second, Gene is saying “vote for *either* candidate”. What about the Libertarian, Constitution or Green parties? Oh, don’t vote for them, “you’ll waste your vote.”

    So in truth, although Gene may not have thought so, Gene had an agenda…and that’s okay.

    Of course, we have to give a slight tip of the hat to Gene’s entry into a Stephen Baldwin-type logical paradox, namely, “don’t listen to celebrities when it comes to politics”. I wonder if Gene knows any Cretians.

  23. diarmuid
    diarmuid December 3, 2008 at 2:12 pm |

    Vegans for Gun Rights

  24. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 3, 2008 at 4:38 pm |

    poli ticks
    Aren’t these the vermin that get under the skin and into the cracks of the seats of power

    poli ticks are blood suckers alright, they can exist in relative peace in symbiotic relationships
    like intestional flora; they are a boon for getting things done; but when out of balance–whoa!
    Solids become liquids and the emission of hot air is pretty noxious

  25. Mysterion
    Mysterion December 3, 2008 at 4:41 pm |

    Politics, like Zen is not about what you SAY, it’s about what you DO.

    I’m happy to hear you invaded Nevada as part of Team Obama. Sad that so many Obama voters drank the homophobic Kool-Aid.

    An Obama T at a dharma talk? At one level, it just doesn’t matter. I wore my McCain/Moses 2008BC shirts all week.

  26. Mysterion
    Mysterion December 3, 2008 at 4:53 pm |

    BTW Pearl Harbor was a military target while the two A-Bombs were (shall we say) somewhat less selective.

    Also, I am of a somewhat Germanic origin and lost no one in the holocaust. All war is bad war.

    His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire was with Adolf Hitler at the beach one day and all the girls crowded around il Duce.

    Hitler said: “I don’t get it.”

    Mussolini said: “Adolf, tomorrow, put a potato in your pants.”

    Next day at the beach, all the girls again crowded around il Duce.

    Hitler said: “I STILL don’t get it.”

    Mussolini said: “Adolf, tomorrow, put the potato in FRONT.”

  27. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 3, 2008 at 5:53 pm |

    mysterion, no more potato jokes.

  28. grisom
    grisom December 3, 2008 at 6:13 pm |

    Hey, dig the new layout! Is that the cover of your new book I see there? Nice!

  29. PhilBob-SquareHead
    PhilBob-SquareHead December 3, 2008 at 6:31 pm |

    Hitler, Gene Simmons, B. Obama, Jesus of Nazareth, B. Warner, the Buddha, Yosemite Sam, Mr. Potato Head ……all the same to me.

    Just another image on whom you are turning your life/personal responsibility over to.

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 4, 2008 at 8:28 am |

    Please Phil.. No more potato head references.. My younger brother is a potato head and we don’t think it is funny.

  31. clever play on words
    clever play on words December 4, 2008 at 4:00 pm |

    politricks and politricksters

  32. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 5, 2008 at 9:09 am |

    mebbe bedda title for your 3rd:

    In Hot Pursuit Until the Trail’s Gone Cold:

    or peters create desire until desire peter’s out

  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 5, 2008 at 12:58 pm |

    what about

    coming and going

    impermanence as experienced from the bathroom to the bedroom and back again

  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 5, 2008 at 6:29 pm |

    I think a more inclusive look at what engaged Buddhism means is necessary. Of course we’re engaged in the actual sense, everybody is, your clutch is out and the car is moving so to speak.
    But “Engaged” Buddhism is more about letting out the clutch and driving your car into a group of John McCain supporters, because they’re evil. This is the same as doing something else that is perceived as socially just, take your chances because times change. This “Engaged” Buddhism is just another way to say political activism. Nationalism. Fascism. whatever.

    All Buddhism is not “Engaged”.

    Hope I communicated to you what I was trying to say originally.

  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm |

    Coming late to the debate, but how about this: “Vote for the guy against torture?” ‘Nuff said?

Comments are closed.