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politics, precepts and the next president

March 27, 2008

Being a socially active Buddhist can be difficult when it comes to making decisions that reflect Buddhist beliefs and practices in the real world. In politics, for example, there is no perfect candidate or representative that embodies the Dhamma one hundred percent. In turn, there is no strict framework of dos and don’ts when it comes to choosing elected officials. It is up to each individual to utilize their own discernment and make their own choices.

In this election year, the candidate who I felt was the closest in regard to representing my own views and vision for the future was Dennis Kucinich, e.g., he is against the death penalty; he has been an outspoken proponent of impeachment; he is open to diplomacy with countries that are considered to be hostile to the Untied States; he introduced a bill to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, et cetera. Nevertheless, he was marginalized by the media and his own party, and due to difficulties in getting contributions (partially because he refused to accept corporate donations), he was forced to withdraw his nomination.

This leaves me with a difficult choice in November. Essentially, an elected official is someone who you are giving the authority to speak for you and make decisions on your behalf. As such, that person should reflect your views as closely as possible. But what happens when nobody comes all that close? What is the most important criteria when it comes to making this decision, and in effect, giving the commander-in-chief of the worlds most powerful military the authority to speak for you and make decisions that will reverberate throughout the rest of the world? It is up to each individual to answer that question for themselves, but for me, the answer boils down to truthfulness.

The Buddha once said, “For the person who transgresses in one thing, I tell you, there is no evil deed that is not to be done. Which one thing? This: telling a deliberate lie” (Iti 25). Additionally, in the Jakata stories, which are basically morality tales that detail the past lives of the Buddha-to-be, in one life or another the Bodhisatta breaks every one of the five precepts except the one against false speech. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that in order to learn and grow from his mistakes, the Buddha had to remain open and honest about three things: (1) his intentions, (2) his actions and (3) the results of his actions. This, in essence, relates to the doctrine of kamma.

Therefore, to me, truthfulness does not simply mean saying things that are true, but as Thanissaro Bhikkhu likes to say, “being a true person” as well. Furthermore, as Andrew Huxley notes in The Kurudhamma: From Ethics to Statecraft, “The negative precept against lying is also apositive precept that agreements should be honoured” (197). Therefore, when looking at all of the potential candidates, I believe that it is important to not only look at what they are saying they have done in the past or will do in the future, but to take a close look at what they have actually done. Our votes are given in trust, trust that should be earned.

In conclusion, when it comes to voting for the next President of the United States, we should ask questions such as, Does this person speak truthfully?, Does this person do what they say they are going to do?, Is this person consistent in their voting records, speeches, et cetera? When people say to vote your conscience, it might sound trite, but it is sound advice considering that our votes are an elected official’s permission slip to act on our behalf.

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