Spirituality & Politics, & never the Twain Shall Meet! [Trungpa, Shambhala, Thich Nhat Hanh, McCain Obama Palin!]

Via Waylon Lewis
on Sep 30, 2008
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This was just posted to my Buddhist community’s e-announcement board: 

“The Buddha’s teaching is used merely for political purposes and to draw people together socially.  As a result, the blessings of spiritual energy are being lost.”  ~  Chogyam Trungpa’s Sadhana of Mahamudra

Hearing about the recent posts [by Shambhala Buddhists re: the coming election] makes me wonder how your Shambhala Buddhism headed by a young married couple is any different than the PTL Evangelist group of some years past that was headed by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?  Of course, theirs was a Christian religion espousing right wing politics – but other than that I mean.

“Do not force others to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda or even education.”  ~  Thich Nhat Hanh – teachings on Engaged Buddhism.

My response:
This is the kind of navel-gazing that prevents the yoga and Buddhist communites from engaging in their world, as a community. Individually, many of us get involved in our communities, vote, run businesses, volunteer, raise families–do our part to create enlightened society. But as a community, I can’t remember an instance when my Shambhala community engaged en masse to effect change politically, environmentally or otherwise. 

You’re correct—there’s a huge danger in subverting the Buddhadharma for personal gain, socializing, ego or political gain. That said, if we care about our environment and the next seven generations, it would seem to be a good thing to get involved in politics with the same prajna/intelligence and thoughtfulness as one does in buying the right dishwash detergent.

Only 55% of Americans vote–if non-new-agey, compassion- and peace-focused spiritual and religious communities got involved from coast-to-coast, we will have a real effect for peace—just as Thich Nhat Hanh did, bravely, in Vietnam. Bonus: we wouldn’t have to hear folks harping about fleeing to Canada every four years!

Trungpa Rinpoche might have written that quote you mention–but it’s you, Ralph, who’s using the Dharma to back up your argument. Trungpa Rinpoche also encouraged—pleaded with—us as Shambhala Buddhist ‘warriors’ to build a real, better enlightened society, to get involved in our communities, even to run for political office.

So it’s a koan, perhaps. Is Dharma informing our involvement in our community, and nation? Or, as you point out, are politics too often merely fueling hatred, discursiveness, petty infighting—with us looking to Dharma to back up our point of view?

The answer is to be found on my meditation cushion, I’m sure!

Bonus: some great spiritually-minded folks devoted to their communities:



About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


14 Responses to “Spirituality & Politics, & never the Twain Shall Meet! [Trungpa, Shambhala, Thich Nhat Hanh, McCain Obama Palin!]”

  1. Ben says:


    Have you heard of the Sokka Gakkai? They are the fastest growing (possibly the largest) Buddhist contingent in Japan save for the Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. You’ve probably seen the people who chant “Namu Myo Horenge Kyo” in the United States. That was brought to popularity by the Sokka Gakkai.

    Anyway, the reason I mention it is because it is also an intensely political wing of Buddhism. In fact, their founder, Daisetsu Ikeda, once rode around a meeting on a white horse proclaiming the coming kingdom of the Buddha.

    There is one party in Japan (the Japanese name escapes me now, but the English name is “Clean Government Party”) who used to be tied deeply into Sokka Gakkai.

    And let’s not forget that the Dalai Lama, up until his exile, was both the spiritual and political leader of an entire nation of people. So yeah, I agree that Buddhism can be, and has been shown to be, intensely political as well as spiritual.

  2. admin says:

    Should spiritual types who want to better the world get involved in politics, or just keep meditating?

    If more than 55% (the national average) of the huge eco/yoga/Buddhist/Whole Foods demographic (LOHAS) bothered to vote for their values—peace, environment—on November 4th–they might just be able to help swing the election.

  3. admin says:

    “If I had any proposition then this fallacy would be mine. I have, however, no proposition, and therefore I have no fallacy.”

    Robert Alan Paul
    Dalhousie University
    Interdisciplinary Studies Ph.D. Programme
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

    Buddhist Metaphysics, Western Metaphysics and Physics
    [email protected]

  4. Todd says:

    I think the idea that as Buddhists, we can’t or shouldn’t take a role in politics, is a mistake. If we are serious about changing the world, we aren’t going to do it from the cushion. It takes being informed, engaged, and involved. Yes, there is a danger of using the Dharma for personal gain, but then there’s a risk of using ANYTHING for personal gain, so that’s not an excuse for not getting involved…. intention and mindfulness is the key. I would definitely recommend MINDFUL POLITICS to anyone interested in how to best incorporate the two. My review of it can be found here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2008/09/book-review-mindful-politics-a-buddhist-guide-to-making-the-world-a-better-place-melvin-mcleod-ed/

  5. Growing up in a dharma family, one of my pet hates is when people use dharma to defend an egocentric position… Hmmmm Mr Robert Alan Paul. Particularly Nagarjuna, what is the deal!?!
    I swear Chandrakirti is pulling on some painted cow tits saying “that guy really didn’t get Nagarjuna”.
    All of the fancy philosophy of dharma that refers to not having any ‘position’ (or political leaning if you want to interpret it this way) is utterly irrelevant to this discussion…

    This is why:
    Because, people like Chandrakirti and Nagarjuna did not have any problem with cow herders, builders, doctors, business people etc living their lives and doing what they do. For example engaging in the political process of democracy to create a better world for themselves and their loved ones…
    No Problem!!!
    What they did have a problem with, was pretentious and ignorant philosophers who tried to cling to ‘absolute’ and ‘fundamental’ ideas about the nature of reality.

    Waylon is utterly right in the most simple, practical and straightforward sense to be political, engaged and active. I think that all of these critics who get all philosophical and say that Buddhism should not be political should pull their head out of their navel (or elsewhere).

    Philosophically there is a division between relative and absolute truth (learn about it), it is similar to the difference between being practical and idealistic. One can inform the other, but if you try to do one when you should be doing the other you can look like an idiot.

    All of those who are thinking of not voting, please be practical and not idealistic. I live in Australia but am a dual citizen (Berkeley = home town) with USA, I can’t vote in US because I don’t live there. In Australia we are fined $$$ if we don’t vote! (seriously), you guys have no idea how stupid America looks when you see that only half of you (us) can be bothered voting. It is an insult to the rest of the world.

    Please think practically, please vote.
    Thank you

  6. Todd says:

    Just to chime in another $.02, if you think that being a “good Buddhist” means not being involved in social and political situations, let us not forget that the Buddha himself was socially and politically active, teaching the Dharma to women, the poor, the Untouchables… his very act of doing so was a slap in the face to the ruling class and to what would have been considered “acceptable” behavior.

    Nor should Christians forget that Christ was also a social and political rebel, consorting with prostitutes, lepers, and the like, and it cost him his life.

    To follow the path of men like these, one must also commit to a path of awareness, engagement, and involvement. No excuses, no whining.

  7. admin says:

    John made a comment about your posted item:

    “both. never stop meditating. push yourself to get involved as a practice. Trungpa was all about doing what’s uncomfortable, right? and for me getting involved with politics is more uncomfortable than a 3-piece suit and some wingtips 2 sizes 2 small. Vote for me when I run for congress in 15 years or so. :)”

  8. admin says:

    I was asked by a number of people to expand on the statement I “announced” yesterday, and so here it is.

    “The Buddha’s teaching is used merely for political purposes and to draw people together socially. As a result, the blessings of spiritual energy are being lost.” ~ Sadhana of Mahamudra

    Some years ago a friend and fellow math teacher told me of a wonderful Christian group that he had joined. It was headed by a married couple and it had changed his life. The followers of this sect were devoted to this married couple and considered them and their family to be royalty. The sect leaders were driven around in limos and had homes built for them throughout the United States by their devotees who saw them as almost divine conduits of the teachings of the enlightened Christ – true spiritual gurus..

    When he told me it was the PTL Network headed by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker I stated my opinion that it was actually a Right-Wing Religious group masquerading as a Religious sect. He was furious with me and said that it was the only group teaching Christ’s message in its purity and that in fact they did not exclude anyone. Liberals and conservatives were both equally welcome. I pointed out that there were no liberals in the group which seemed to prove that in actual fact they had created a environment totally hostile to such people. His answer was that the lack of liberals was solely due to their being totally selfish people who used the tax laws to steal from others and espoused the killing of infants in the womb among other stated evils, and that they were thus incapable of hearing the teachings of Christ.

    Two years ago I had a similar discussion with a director of a major center concerning the virtual absence of anyone with a conservative political ideology in the Shambhala Buddhist world and the message was virtually identical, right down to the incredibly arrogant statement that people with conservative ideology were incapable of hearing the teachings of the Buddha. She would not buy that it had to do with a hostile situation being created towards anyone not espousing left wing politics as dharma in the centers.

    Last month I attended a Vajrayogini feast and the chopon, who is also the director of study, added George Bush’s name to the Brahmins, dogs and outcasts that were asked to leave the feast. This was a feast being denigrated to foster his political view with total disregard to others present who might hold this president in high regard. A shambhala level teacher there told me that in the South they would call Sarah Palin “white trash.”. If not from the teacher’s chair, certainly from every nook and cranny, the message is being sent that conservatives are not welcome in these centers. Would any of you stay in a center that advertised classes on how to peacefully protest abortion clinics, had letters from the President of Shambhala asking the UN to back the war against terrorism, had articles in their newsletter calling for enforcement of the borders and deportation of illegals, and had bulletin board notices as to effective ways to ensure the passage of an Amendment that would ban gay marriage? If every conversation you heard in the center criticized and denigrated leaders you respected, or if a level director told you just what name people in the South would have for Barack Obama, would you stay to hear the teachings? Yet this is exactly what virtually every one of you do in virtually every center of Shambhala Buddhism. And then you say that of course your political insights must be correct and dharmic even since everyone in the center concurs with them and abhors these others.

    So, .play a game at your center this week. See if you can find five conservatives in your membership – or even one. Hell, see if you can find ten conservatives in all of Shambhala Buddhism! Then ask what you personally are doing to cause such a thing to be. Listen to the conversations and see the images in the center and its writings. Wonder aloud as to how your “compassion” and “prajna” could allow you and the others to create a situation in which people who don’t share your political values are forced outside the pale of these teachings. Just read the postings on this and that other horrid site!

    And so now you even have a married couple at the head of this Shambhala Buddhist sect – your very own Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.. I would never imply that these two magnificent human beings in any manner aggressively foster the hostility towards half the country’s population that was so obvious with the Bakkers, but there does seem to be a total ignoring of the reality that is occurring due to the actions of those placed in positions of power. This ignorance or perhaps lack of confidence to act is at least a remote cause leading to the similar situation that was once so obvious in the PTL. Hopefully the Sakyong’s upcoming retreat will enable him to begin to connect to the Crazy Wisdom lineage in a realized way and he will come back and kick some ass! Meanwhile at this present time in history there can be not a scintilla of difference found between this “Mukpo family Shambhala Buddhism” of today and the “Bakker family PTL network” of old – other than that the concepts of “Christian” and “Conservative” are replaced with equally empty concepts of “Shambhala Buddhism” and “Liberal.”

    In times past I would have thought that this is not a proper message for Sangha Announcements but I see that the rules seem to be lifted these days. Just yesterday I read of the coming of Michele Obama to Boulder. I know she is not a Buddhist teacher yet saw not one complaint about that posting! And of course, this discussion about the denigration of the terma discovered by the Vidyadhara Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche into some left wing religious cult has to be “announced” from the rooftops so as to undercut its perversity. What could possibly be more apropos to this site that such a proclamation? Besides, I was asked to do this and want to be of help.

    Long ago we asked the Vidyadhara whether it was the liberal or the conservative position that was closer to the Shambhala teachings. His answer was an emphatic: “Neither one! Both are equally false and wrong!” Perhaps one day we can once again have centers that are open, spacious, and relaxed in which all can hear and practice these profound teachings and be on the path to enlightenment without either of these wrong views being presented as dharma. And hopefully you are all intelligent enough to not read this “pithy commentary” as a cry to replace the present liberal insanity with conservative crapola. It is instead written in the sincere passionate hope that one or two people in each center will begin to say that “enough is enough. Surely all can see that we need more conservatives in this group! The beauty of such diversity is that it will cause arguments and make it obvious that these discussions have no place in a dharma center. The insidious evil of the present situation is that since 100% agree all the time, it must therefore be true and even dharmic.

    This writing will upset some of you and for that I apologize. If it tickles the intelligence of just a few in each center then it will have accomplished its objective. Shambhala Buddhism could then be on a path to having truly open, spacious, relaxed centers where dharma can be studied and practiced by all. Our centers really could once again become like the practice centers of the 70s and early 80s instead of the socio-political community centers they are today. And am I the only one who refers to those horrid buildings up at the spiritual shopping mall that was once the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center as the “Paris Hilton Twin Towers?” Thankfully there is Dorje Khyung Dzong – the one true practice center here in the US. Hopefully we will soon have more.

    Now: “Vote Obama/Biden” and be sure to get to that rally in Boulder for Michele Obama!!!

    There that should head off any criticism.


    Ralph Asher

  9. admin says:

    Ralph wrote:
    On second thought … .

    Just mentioned your name to my housemate that I took in two years ago. I am presently supporting his practice and study as well as seeing that he is trained as a scuba diver… …We will then spend November in solitary retreats at DKD (He does so each May and November since arriving 9/11/06) and of course we do the Vajrayogini sadhana 3 1/2 hours daily. At any rate, he said, “I know Waylon. He is LInda Lewis’s son and edits a dharma magazine.

    You wouldn’t recognize the man these days as he does the daily practice in [monastic] robes now and plans to don them for the upcoming retreat – including the group retreat. He is making amazing progress on the path and I am the luckiest sentient being alive to be his friend, sponsor, and practice partner. He suggested that I look into that magazine of yours and who knows, it might be a way to get something done here.


    Ralph Asher

    PS. By the way, Dylan said to say hello. (Actually goes more by Jon Henderson these days.)

    —– Original Message —–
    From: Waylon Lewis
    I hear you. Good to keep distractions to a minimum. Still, for the sake of others, I think you were bringing up a worthwhile object for contemplation. With best wishes–



    On Sep 30, 2008, at 2:00 PM, Ralph B. Asher wrote:
    Thanks Waylon but I really am trying to make the view that the outer world is not truly existent much less worth of trying to fix more than an intellectual concept. That in fact, clinging to it in order to change it to be the way you want it to be is the cause of its appearing solid instead as a dream, mirage, or the others of the 12 analogies of illusion and is the cause of all my suffering. The last thing I need is a forum that undermines this effort. My only reason for posting this is that I hate to see the Shambhala teachings being denigrated this way. Even then it took me the full 3 1/2 hours of practice this morning before I felt like the uncleanness was washed away some.

    Thanks though,

    —– Original Message —–
    From: Waylon Lewis

    Post the below comment, if so inspired, on my post at elephantjournal.com–it’s a decent forum for such worthwhile discussions, as opposed to sangha-announce where folks really only want announcements.



    On Sep 30, 2008, at 1:43 PM, Ralph wrote:
    Am thinking of doing a follow-up. If the political posts stop it might not be needed. Hate to see what is occurring to the Shambhala teachings though.

    I was so lucky to have found the teachings in Chicago back in the late 70s. We had a large majority of liberals there but did have nearly a dozen who either brought conservative values in with them or had respected friends who held them. As a consequence when someone broached some political concept at the center an argument would ensue and soon someone said that we should stop this and not allow such talk. And so the center was open, spacious, and relaxed where any person could practice and study without having people he/she respected torn down either from the teacher’s seat or in the various areas of the center.

    At our local center two weeks ago the chopon (who is also the director of study) included George Bush in the list of Brahmins, dogs and outcasts that were requested to leave during the end of the Vajrayogini feast. A Shambhala director told me that Sarah Palin was what they in the south referred to as white trash. Bulletin boards tell of anti-war classes and how to stop global warming. There was once a letter posted where Reoch was telling the UN to stop the war. Problem is that there is no diversity here and so they all agree and feed off each other and actually begin to think that their political philosophy has to do with dharma.

    I have addressed this to the Sakyong’s office, the Diversity Committee, and Reoch in the past. You need only ask at your next Buddhist community meeting who there intends to vote for Obama and how for McCain and see if it is pretty close to the national ratio to see how far we have come with these requests. I have a dream that one day such a question will be asked and the entire group will laugh as it shows no hands for either.

    Take care, Ralph

    —– Original Message —–
    From: Waylon Lewis
    To: Ralph
    Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 1:05 PM
    Subject: Re: political posts

    Good man! It’s a great, worthwhile conversation to have!


    list your events free: http://www.elephantjournal.com/events/

    On Sep 30, 2008, at 12:57 PM, Ralph B. Asher wrote:
    Thanks Waylon.

    I don’t usually get or post but my old friend Patton wrote me that there were a lot of liberal posts on [the Buddhist e-announcement board]. and asked me if I might not post something to shake them up a bit.

  10. admin says:

    Some yoga friends of mine are organizing a movement in support of Obama. I thought some of you might be interested in joining the case. It’s going to be a close race. We need all the support we can get. Please feel free to forward to other yoga teachers in the community who are not on this list.

    Also, please take 30 secs to cast your vote for a PBS poll about Sarah Palin’s qualifications to serve as VP of the US here: http://www.pbs.org/now/polls/poll-435.html


    It’s really heating up out there. A small group of local yogis are starting a movement in support of Obama, and you’re invited to the kick-off party this Sunday late-afternoon.
    What will we be doing? Rallying the troops, voter registration training, distributing Obama materials, discussing issues and concerns about mixing politics and yoga, building the network and mailing/calling list of other yoga teachers that we will contact, answering questions, brain-storming ideas, and just being with other wonderful people. Come play and bring your yoga friends. If you haven’t already experienced it, “being the change” in this election is positively invigorating.
    If you cannot make it but would still like to be involved, please contact us and we’ll work with you. We wrote the attached letters (one for Obama – one non-partisan) over the last few days as a convenient resource for local yogis to reach out to other yogis. In the process some other folks decided they liked the letter and offered to add their name to it – amazing what happens when you simply take action. Now it’s time to expand that circle locally, and we hope you’ll join us. */We personally only know a handful of the many wonderful yoga teachers in town, so please add your name above ours and forward this email – invite everyone you think might want to be a part of this exciting movement./*
    *What: Yogis for Obama local and national kick-off party*
    *When: This Sunday, Sept. 21st, 4-6pm* (we will start with an opening meditation so please come on time if you can, but come no matter what)
    *Where: 895 Rainlily Lane, (North) Boulder; directions below*
    ***Details: We’ll have some hors d’ouvres & drinks; no need to bring anything*
    *See you soon!*
    *Scott Rodwin & Judith Ansara Gass (co-instigators)*
    *www.yogisandmeditatorsforobama.com* < http://www.yogisandmeditatorsforobama.com>* *(under construction)
    *www.barackobama.com* <

  11. Hi Ralph, Waylon and others. Thanks for the heartfelt post Ralph, I really agree with what you are saying in many ways, and I can see your point about people starting to confuse politics with dharma.

    I still have a problem with this detachment/apathy to the process. Why can’t someone have a ‘rabid foam at the mouth’ rant about politics and then laugh at themselves, thats dharma man… Its not just sitting in the right way… its farting in the right way also!
    When you say “I have a dream that one day such a question (re: Voting preference) will be asked and the entire group will laugh as it shows no hands for either.”

    My response is “Shit thats a boring dream”, don’t want to hang out in that dharma centre… (sorry, I’m deliberately being provokative) but really Ralph…. c’mon. What about a dream where everyone argues ferociously about politics for 6 hours and then just as the argument is beginning to look violent the George Bush walks in with some cocaine and cuts up some lines and tells everyone to snort “the W dutsi dust of non-dualilility”, then everyone makes love… Thats a much cooler dream… Their both dreams.
    I don’t know you or the Shambhalian types well enough (although I did meet the Sakyong last time I was in the US and he was nice and told me to go to India, plug) but let me tell you a story about my dad.

    He is a socialist/?Anarchist, Vegan, grumpy old political guy. He also spent 8 years at a buddhist retreat centre (much of it in retreat, quite a few Ngondro’s). Some of you will get the picture. Anyway he left the retreat centre because he couldn’t stand the “Tibetie Bullshit” and the “Yuppie Dharma” and the “Dzogpa Chenpo’s” and the “BBQ/Meat Eating” at the Bodhisattva training.
    He is, was (and I fear always will be) intensely political, and that is simultaneously what pisses me off about him, and what makes me admire him. I think 90% of it is his own shit, and 10% has a flavour of validity (the meat thing I agree with), now its easy to say “don’t bring your politics to the dharma”, but without his politics my dad would just be another boring “I’m practicing Vajrayana by eating the flesh of another being with equanimity hypocrit (thats right, startin the arguement)”…

    What I am trying to say is that there is a degree of character, integrity and authenticity in the emotion, energy and action associated with political opinion. If we don’t express it we become dogmatic.

    When I read between the lines I hear this vision (of yours Ralph) that everyone is not ‘caring’ about politics, and it kind of worries me (maybe its just flashbacks from Acid, or being really stoned but I think that panic feeling when it seems like nothing is real is a good thing).

    What you are talking about sounds like a dharma centre full of zombies without an opinion. Of course I agree that dharma centres are for practicing dharma, and most of the time that is the textbook stuff as you put it the dozen illusion egg shells that everyone kept treading on with their free range (outside the ‘dharma’) political topics in ‘sacred’ space… But I would love to see a dharma centre where people laughed as a group, or talked politics as a group, or argued tooth and nail, as long as there was a quality of compassion and wisdom in those situations, it sounds cool.

    Of course we are aspiring to realize the dreamlike nature of reality, to be enlightened, to get our shit sorted out. That would be cool. But do we all have to bliss out and have no opinion as per your dream? Do we have to invite the conservatives and let them stay conservative? Really? I want them to be chanting mantra’s and picketing on behalf of land rights for gay whales! Thats my vision…

    To be frank and more serious, in my opinion, from the distant vantage point of Australia (where I live) Palin does look like a reasonably ignorant and conservative person, and McCain looks like an old guy who loves his country, trying to do his best who hasn’t really got over his war issues. Comparitively Obama looks thoughtful and dynamic, he seems to have a good attitude, and I would vote for him and Biden before the other two any day.

    Regarding how that effects your dharma practice, and whether Buddhists should get involved or not, I think that you need a kick towards the ‘join the land of the living’ as you seem to be at risk of floating off into some formless apolitical realm and that would be a waste of time. Have fun Ralph, vote for Obama (please) and then recognize emptiness and get all enlightened on the 5th…
    PS. I dig the whole no conservatives in Shambhala, they should be trucked in just to give the place some backbone (too much downward dog).

  12. Toby says:

    I think you are the only one who calls those buildings the Paris Hilton Twin Towers.

    And, please, can we stop worrying about the name of the place?

    In the past two years I have been to SMC for two two-week long retreats, that’s it, nothing compared to the three-month booze-festival attempt at recreating the dead-and-gone 70’s that was my Seminary, and each time the teachings and practice snapped my noodle quite sufficiently thank you very much.

  13. […] this open field. This insight is what prompts us to be generous and resourceful post-meditation. As Nagarjuna said, “Because of emptiness, everything is […]

  14. Pat says:

    If Obama was qualfied, and survived, Palin is qualified and will survive.

    If religion can be presumed to be human philosophy, there can be no separation of religion and politics since politics is human philosophy on the best method of organizing resources in order to live, and to survive. When the twain becomes the train, mankind will be organized for his success, rather than his failure.