Monday, September 24, 2012

For Better or Worse: Buddhists in Politics

Politics is a dirty business, but according to our Buddhist teachers (such as Shuichi Maida in his commentary on the arson incident in Goethe’s Faust), all business is “defiled.” Even the most altruistic endeavor involves the taking of lives – animal, plant and mineral – and/or wrongful speech (deception, withholding facts etc.). Maybe only the monastics can claim to be living a pure life of ahimsa (non-violence) – assuming they eat only vegetables and fruit that the plants willingly release.

Government is needed to keep order in our complicated community lives, so someone has to run for office. A good dozen years ago, a Polish-American member of our temple told me he wanted to run for alderman (for you non-Chicagoans, the city is run by a council made up of ward representatives called “aldermen”). He was going around his neighborhood to collect signatures so he could get on the primary ballot. He told me about one elderly lady who smiled and said he was a good Polish boy when he described his deep roots in the community, having grown up there. Then she asked, “What church do you go to?” As soon as he said “Buddhist Temple of Chicago,” the door slammed shut in his face.

Now it’s not that much of a detriment to declare yourself a Buddhist in elections. In the recent aldermanic elections, one of our temple members, Emily, ran for alderman and noted her affiliation with our temple in her campaign literature. She came in third so she didn’t make it to the run-off but it was a good showing of support from the neighborhood around our temple.

Many of our temple members are and have been involved in government and politics. I feel I can give them as individuals my support even when those individuals may be on different sides of an issue or working to promote a cause I don’t personally agree with. There’s no “Buddha is on our side” advocacy on my part – I just want to be supportive of my fellow Buddhist doing what he or she feels is important in our community life.


Yesterday we learned that someone who has been attending our temple for many years is in the news in regards to his position in public office. I don’t want to rush to judgment since there is probably a lot of complicated history involved, but the person is in an “appearance of impropriety” situation. We all know the media tends to hype things up so I don’t want to depend only on what the news outlets are saying. It could be a case of wanton corruption but my guess is that it’s more in the category of “I thought it was okay because everyone else was doing it and no one was complaining at the time.” It’s like when you find the newspaper vending box is open and everyone is grabbing a paper for free – are you going to be the one who sticks their quarter in first or are you thinking, “What’s twenty-five cents? It’s the newspaper company’s fault for leaving the box open.” In public office, the stakes are higher because the taxpayers end up paying to make up the budget shortfalls. But when office holders fail to consider the burden they create for taxpayers are they any different from any of us who help ourselves to “freebies” when we know we shouldn’t? The cost of our “theft” gets passed on to us eventually.

I haven’t reached out to this particular member yet but I hope we see him sometime and hear how he’s dealing with the karmic causes and conditions that are painting him as the bad guy.


  1. Then she asked, “What church do you go to?” As soon as he said “Buddhist Temple of Chicago,” the door slammed shut in his face.
    *sigh* It's amazing how intolerant Christians are.

  2. Actually Christians have become much more tolerant than before - one proof is Emily, who publicized her membership at our temple, receiving many votes from Christians and people of other religious backgrounds in her recent campaign for the aldermanic primary.