By Daniel Burke
By most counts, several times more people live in New York City than practice Buddhism nationwide.
So American Buddhists aren’t likely to become a political machine or a crucial swing vote any time soon. But as the religion born in the East carves its place in the West, many Buddhists are making a mark in U.S. politics, including this year’s presidential race.
A significant number of Buddhist immigrants who fled communist regimes in Southeast Asia tend to be politically conservative, which could help Republican candidate Sen. John McCain. But a solid majority of American Buddhists are converts, who tend to be liberal, and many back Democrat Barack Obama.
Take, for example, Sharon Salzberg.
In September, the writer and meditation teacher traveled to Ohio and registered voters for the first time in her 56 years. Salzberg, a New York City native, said she was inspired by Obama.
“His message that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and that we have to work together to implement a better vision moved me profoundly,” she said.
Salzberg was also one of 25 prominent teachers and authors who signed a statement in September urging fellow Buddhists to pay attention to politics.
“Whatever your political beliefs, your active, informed citizenship is part of a wise household practice,” the Buddhist leaders said.
That could be a boon for Obama. Buddhists, who form about 1 percent of the U.S. population (roughly the same as Muslims) are among the country’s most liberal religious groups, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. More than two-thirds said they are Democrats or lean Democratic.
The 500 members of “Buddhists for Obama” have raised more than $230,000, sponsored 1,700 events and made 26,000 calls for their candidate, according to Obama’s Web site. There’s no Buddhist group listed for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain; a request to his campaign for information went unanswered.
Several Buddhists said Obama’s message of unity accords with Dharma teachings on interconnectedness and the dangers of an us-versus-them dualism. Morever, they say, the Democrat’s background reflects the Buddha’s belief that all beings can become enlightened, regardless of race or class.
“I think his candidacy has brought to the forefront issues of multi-racial identity for U.S. citizens,” said Mushim Patricia Ikeda-Nash, a Buddhist teacher in Oakland, Calif.
That’s not to say that Buddhism is inherently liberal. A sizable minority of Buddhists — particularly Asian Americans — vote Republican, said Jeff Wilson, an assistant professor of religion at Renison College, University of Waterloo in Canada.
Venerable Vien Duc, abbot of the Auspicious Cloud Monastery in Haymarket, Va., said many of his fellow Vietnamese-Americans support the GOP because of its tough anti-communist stance during the Cold War.
“The typical Vietnamese, because they suffered with communism, don’t want anything associated with it,” he said of communism.
In Broomfield, Colo., Charles Martin, an American-Indian Buddhist Republican, said his support for McCain has everything to do with his religious practice.
“I think Buddhism is inherently rather libertarian,” said Martin. “You examine things for yourself and finally save yourself. That leads me in general to not liking a lot of kinds of government intervention.”
Other Buddhists, however, are hesitant about translating the Dharma into a political philosophy.
“I have always found Buddhism to be a refuge from the political and social world,” said Charles Johnson, an award-winning novelist who practices Zen in Seattle.
The Rev. Danny Fisher, a Buddhist blogger from Greensboro, N.C., said his understanding of the Dharma “means doing all I can to benefit beings — hence my mindful involvement in progressive causes and social justice work. … But I recognize that other Buddhists may understand things differently.”
Robert Jones, whose recent book, “Progressive & Religious,” includes a chapter on American Buddhists, said “there’s a kind of humility built into Buddhism. They are really reticent to come out with guns blazing and proscriptions for what needs to happen.”
That may be changing, though. Especially if David Loy, author of “Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” has anything to say about it.
“You can’t simply read off Buddhist attitudes toward globalization or climate change or modern technology,” Loy said. “But if one looks at basic Buddhist principles, one can pretty easily tease them out.