Third Eye on the News: Talking to Buddhists About the '08 Race and the "Rough Old Trade" of Politics

08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Serenity? Yeah, that would be good. Some sense of what happens when I die? That would be nice, too, as the decades whirl by. But there's a world on fire out there -- and anyway, some of us aren't made for the monastic life. These election years are especially challenging: One candidate plays dirty, the other occasionally disappoints, and the media rig the game.

Same old same old.

It seemed like a good idea to ask some Buddhists for guidance. So I did, in my second piece for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. It's called "Election Returns: The Politics of Karma, the Karma of Politics." A number of wise people gave me real wisdom -- far more than I could fit into a 2500-word piece.

Am I a Buddhist? I don't feel completely comfortable saying so. That's certainly how I roll meditation-wise, and Buddhism makes sense to me metaphysically. But I feel some loyalty to my Jewish upbringing. And to the Christians who took me in and showed me love. And to the agnostics and nonbelievers, including the one who raised me. Question: Does calling yourself something make you disloyal to everything else?

And I don't think people should have to label themselves religiously. But if I had to state my religion on a passport or a hospital admission form, then yeah, I'd put "Buddhist." But which kind? There are so many flavors: Zen, Tibetan, Vipassana. I don't know. And on second thought, I've stopped caring what happens when I die, anyway. If it's oblivion, fine. If it's reincarnation or some other continuance, fine. I lean toward the latter, but as Bob Hope said when someone asked if he'd rather be cremated or buried: Surprise me.

As I was saying, I learned a lot. I especially liked what Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa told me: "You (Americans) must try to help each other fight structural violence. It's not Buddhist to pursue a selfish Nirvana." (The other Buddhists I spoke with liked it too.) And Robert Thurman was especially taken with a little problem I was having seeing a certain prominent Republican (and Halliburton executive) in meditation.

Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield "encourages political engagement as a dimension of spiritual life." Wes Nisker helped with my burning resentments and provided a bright vision of the future. Roshi Bernie Glassman talked about social engagement as a reflection of inner states. Radio host Thom Hartmann (somebody else who doesn't label his beliefs) reflected on the optimism he has felt in different political movements.

Poet/activist Anne Waldman, speaking during the primary contest, reflected on Hillary Clinton's siddhis (abilities) and hoped she would put them to good use after the "grasping" of the primaries ended. (She has, and Bill will hopefully follow.)

Many of the Buddhist teachers I interviewed were enthusiastic Obama supporters, seeing in him a certain balance, focus, and ability to create reconciliation. I started to wonder if there had been a meditators' caucus somewhere ...

British practitioner/activist Ken Jones discussed the "vortex of party politics ... a rough old trade, and not for any of our co-religionists who crave Purity and Perfection." That's the real question: How can a person be politically effective without becoming trapped in that eternal cycle of resentment and payback? Otherwise we remain enslaved to the never-ending conflicts, generation after generation and life after life.

Same old same old.

The folks I interviewed gave me so much good material that I'll be excerpting more of it shortly. If you have a chance to read the Tricycle piece in the meantime, let me know what you think.

RJ Eskow blogs at: