Drawing the Line

12/09/2010 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A reader of The Buddha Diaries raised a provocative and troubling question yesterday in the context of my reluctance to condemn Obama's actions and decisions on the tax bill: "Do you have," he asked, "a line he mustn't cross?" Having given this challenging question a great deal of thought since I read it, I have come to the realization that I actually don't -- which, as I say, is troubling for one who considers himself a man of principle.

Here's what I've been thinking: when it comes to the decisions that I myself make, and the actions I take, I do have a line I believe I should not cross. That line is one I have learned from the Buddhist teachings. It's about not doing harm to myself or others. I can do harm in many ways, from taking life to theft, to idle gossip and, in principle, telling lies -- though there are situations in which the conscious lie can be less harmful than truth. (I struggle with the idea that the same could be said for killing, or declaring war. I consider myself fortunate not to be in that position of power, to not have that responsibility.)

But it's more problematic when it comes to drawing lines for others not to cross, presidents included. By all means, I can hope and wish most earnestly that other people share the line I personally will strive to respect. But I am not empowered to make their decisions or take their actions for them. I am not in a position to do more than make an educated guess at the complex factors that motivate and guide them. When I start drawing lines for others, I risk crossing another, into the territory of judgmental self-righteousness. I am inclined to go along with the suggestion of the title in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's recent essay in Tricycle magazine: "The Power of Judgment: Judgmental Is Bad, Judicious Is Good." There is a difference between the two, in that "judgmental" reaches out with blame, while "judicious" evokes an essential inner ability to discriminate.

To get to politics, then: I ask myself what purpose my line serves, once I have drawn it? My reader brought up the matter of "ratifying torture and illegal wars," raising truly agonizing questions about what I will condone. I do not, obviously, condone either of them -- not even by my silence: I wrestle with my conscience, I question, I speak out. Nor do I agree with many of the other decisions Obama has made since taking office. I personally would rather he had taken different paths on a number of issues, and made more gratifyingly principled stands. But I am not faced with the burden of his responsibilities. I am not in a position to have to weigh the awful potential consequences of his actions, as he must do: will they result in greater or less harm to the people he has sworn to serve? Should he -- as another reader suggested in a later response to the same piece, in a comment with which my gut heartily agrees -- "turn up the volume and be confrontational"? Would that action serve his purposes, and ours; or would it merely satisfy my need to vindicate my principles and end up doing more harm than good to an economy already stressed to breaking point?

Let's recall that, a few days ago, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly, 36-53 and 37-53, against Democratic attempts to restore taxes for those earning over $250,000 and $1 million, respectively. Let's not forget that Congress ducked their responsibility on this issue at a moment that would have been more propitious, before the November elections. With such meager, even mendacious support from his own people, would Obama's principled veto serve the great majority of those he serves, or harm them? I don't pretend to know the answer, but I believe it to be a problem that defies simple answers. I would personally love him to step in with a righteous veto pen and allow all the tax cuts to expire. But it's easy enough for me to wield my principles. I don't have anyone but myself to answer to.

I do believe that I share both the values and the conscience from which those who commented on my entry speak. I believe that I have not only the right but also the obligation to speak my truth out loud. But if I am to make a purely practical choice between support for Obama's moderation and the excesses of his opposition, my choice is clear. So I'm with Gail Collins, the only New York Times columnist I can bear to read these days. (I actually agree with most of them, but it's painful reading!) As she says in her column, "I've got to admit it: I've fallen off the line-in-the-sand bandwagon."

Thanks for listening. I welcome your thoughts...