A House is not a Home
by Chuan Heng Shakya, OHY
I don't know why politics should so often turn out to be the high-priced prostitute of promise, the siren-song of shipwrecks. We listen to a melody and allow ourselves to be lured by it, taken off course until we collide with obstacles we could not see. Our little boat and all its precious cargo goes sinking to the bottom of some awful abyss.
As a child, I loved politics and political discussions. My attraction for the subject came directly from my father who taught me that participation in the American political process was not only a privilege but also a necessity. To him, people who failed to vote failed to participate in democracy itself.
My father was a quiet, intelligent man. He said very little about most other things. To this day, I can't remember the sound of his voice because he so seldom spoke. But when he did - usually at the dinner table, it was about politics; and I listened the way that people in the old E. F. Hutton commercial listened. I'd stop, fork in mid-air, and strain to catch each word.
I remember how he'd read the evening newspaper after supper. He stayed current with political issues and voted in every local, state, and federal election. He was so proud of his perfect voting record, and his pride would show whenever he prepared to go to the polls. He'd suck in his gut, push out his chest, and hold out his hand for me to clasp; and then, in a final effort to induce my mother into joining him in this democratic exercise, he'd gently plead with her to join us. She never did. Neither did my brothers and sisters. They were, as they remain, completely indifferent to the political process. I've always suspected that I was my Dad's favorite child; and if asked to pinpoint one reason it would be that eagerness to accompany him when he did his civic duty.
So we'd go to the polls together and I'd stand there and watch while he disappeared inside the hoop machine curtain. It never took him long to vote because he always voted the `straight' ticket. He was a `party' man who believed that a split ticket was harmful to the efficient attainment of political goals. Naturally, for as long as I accompanied him so proudly to the polls, I believed as he believed; and if I had had the right to vote, I'd have voted exactly as he had.
But then I got too old for paternal civics lessons. I didn't go with him to the polls anymore and didn't pay attention to current issues. And in high school I discovered that many new, unfamiliar issues could not always be resolved simply by pulling a voting machine's straight party-line lever. I had a teacher, Miss Evans, who had definite political opinions and a personal agenda that she pushed in not so subtle terms. I knew more about the mechanics of politics than most of my classmates because I had those dinner-table insights furnished by my father. Miss Evans made an ally of me; she applauded my knowledge of the democratic process. I did not have to memorize terms of office and the peculiarities of the electoral college and all the other facts of bicameral bodies and cabinet posts.
And when Miss Evans took a position on an issue it was assumed that I agreed with it. She'd gesture in my direction for affirmation, and I'd dutifully nod my assent. But soon I discovered that I was in full agreement with the political `platform' opposite the one that my father supported.
Then came the awful evening, just before an election, when I was at home (and not out as usual with my friends) that the subject of voting came up. Exactly as a parrot would disclose profound political insights, I squawked every political opinion I had acquired in Miss Evans' class. I was so enthusiastic in my recitation that it took me a long time to notice the look of pain on my father's face. His favorite child, his political ally in his own home, was worse than his apathetic wife and other children. She had gone over to the enemy camp. If given the right to vote, she would frivolously cancel his much-considered vote.
Naively, I had assumed that we'd have one of those fruitful political debates, engaging in an intelligent discussion of the issues with open minds, generous hearts and respect for the decent opinions of mankind, or some such idealistic notions. Instead, he looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I had opened up an unbreachable gulf between us. The genes, the chromosomes didn't matter. We were now two different species looking at each other across an expansive, unbridgeable gulf. My dream of going to the polls with him, standing in line with him, waiting to vote, seeing the look of pride on his face as I took my turn in the voting booth vanished into the abyss. I would never see the smile he would give me for strengthening his vote with my own. No, two votes are twice as much as one, but a canceled vote is much less than one, and he knew it.
I suppose now, as I look back, that a parent figures if his child is going to be indoctrinated, he has the right to do the indoctrination, not some school teacher or other stranger. My Father had been deprived of that right and had been hurt by it.
When the time came, I registered in a different party and I drove myself to the polls. I stood in line alone, voted alone, and left alone. I didn't even see my Father there.
After that, there was always a silence about politics between us. Curiously enough, given consideration of the same issues now I find myself in greater agreement, than disagreement, with him. But he died before I was ever able to attempt to breach the gulf between us.
It's the nature of politics to force us to make a choice between one candidate or another, between one side of an issue or another, between which of two evils is less evil. I can't be any more positive than this and say, "to decide which course of action seems better." I tried that once and it cost me something very precious. So now I know why the Buddha left his princely scepter behind in the palace. To make informed decisions takes much time and energy, but when we've got a limited amount of these - as we do when we're active in the religious life - we have to rely on the opinions of those we trust and who have taken the time to inform themselves.
In a Sangha, we often hear that Siren's call. Someone will try to lure the group into sharing a political opinion or joining some righteous crusade. Someone will want to make the group veer away from the prescribed route that leads towards enlightenment and go off course towards the source of an exciting melody, to become "involved" and put into action a high-school civics lesson. And as surely as I was separated from my father's love by listening to that call, a Sangha member separates himself from the Buddha's call when he diverts his energy to explore the source of such self-important delights.
It would be nice if we could discuss politics the way we discuss cakes or the ingredients of spaghetti sauce or which of Beethoven's symphonies is the most inspiring. We could enjoy the discussion and learn little things about each other that would make us appreciate each other for those individual qualities and preferences. But politics isn't like that. Politics is that extra-marital affair that promises to give love's meaning and value to our lives and then, to our chagrin, demands payment, or divorce, or both.
We marry the religious life and any glance toward the secular only cheapens our spiritual attainment. Politics and religion are two different symphonies each with its own style. As in music, those who can play classical music well very often cannot play Jazz, and vice versa. We must learn to play one or the other, but not try to play both. Neither of these two masters tolerates infidelity.
So, we must make a choice between these lovely songs -- perhaps the most difficult of choices. The right choice leads us to heaven. The wrong one leads us to the rocks of destruction.
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts