By Enkei Joe Mendyka
It’s Election Day and Doko-san wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the chance to tell you what to think about politics. I’m kidding, of course! But this is a good day to step back from all the anxiety and frustration of the campaigns and reflect on the role of Buddhist practice in our participation as citizens. The Tendai lineage has always been directly concerned with good government and civic engagement. From the time of Dengyo Daishi in the 9th Century, there has been a relationship between the practices of Tendai monks and the well-being of the emperor and nation. In his original set of regulations for monks, the Tendai founder wrote, “What is the treasure of the nation? Its is our religious nature.”
In medieval Japan, that included the constant performance of liturgies and recitation of sacred scripture on behalf of the emperor and the nation. But it also included sending monks across the country to perform vital public services for the time such as repairing reservoirs and irrigation ditches, reclaiming uncultivated land and digging wells. Saicho recognized that spiritual cultivation must coincide with virtuous public acts in order for the teachings to be real in people’s lives. In this way, he writes, “the nations will remain strong, and the bodhisattva way will not cease.”*
Many of us look desperately to our public leaders to demonstrate virtue in their professional lives, and with good reason: it is natural to expect leaders to lead. However, the bodhisattva doesn’t have the convenience of being able to point to the misdeeds of others in blame. Those that choose this path have made a commitment of themselves to lead all sentient beings out of samsara. They have taken on the responsibility of bringing all that is wholesome into the world and eliminating all that is unwholesome and they have dedicated themselves to mastering all wisdom in this pursuit in order to lead a life of perfection and righteousness.
The sort of selflessness and sacrifice of this practice lies at the heart of what Dengyo Daishi expected of monks 1200 years ago and it is what is required of citizens in modern democracies. The 6 perfections of the bodhisattva–generosity, ethical discipline, patience, diligence, meditative equipoise and penetrating wisdom–encapsulate the attitude that makes for strong families, neighborhoods, communities and nations. Today, public service may look like lots of things. For some its volunteering for the armed forces, while for others its leading protest groups that call for an end to war. It may be raising a family that mindfully respects the rules of society or it could be studying and practicing the law to bring criminals to justice and into reconciliation with society. Some people contribute to the greater good by responsibly providing humane employment to professionals for whom they generously express gratitude and others do so by working under difficult conditions for little pay in order to benefit others. Whatever form it takes, this practice is purposeful, compassionate and based on a recognition of the needs of the world around us.
So, as the election results roll in, bear in mind the consequences of your conduct on the path. Many people will be excited because someone that they supported won, while others will experience disappointment because someone they voted for lost. There is nothing inherently unwholesome about celebration or mourning. But attachment to these emotions will create more suffering for all beings. Becoming arrogant and complacent in our joy or bitter and defeated in our loss will not support right practice and will weaken ourselves and the nation. Bodhisattvas recognize that, regardless of the conditions or timing, here and now is the perfect place and moment to practice compassion. If you can meet each moment like this, you will, no doubt, be considered the treasure of this nation.
*For more information about Saicho’s regulations for monks, see Dr. Paul Groner’s Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School from University of Hawaii Press (2000).