This month our neighbours to the south are having a presidential election. There is much talk that Canadians, too, will be going to the polls within the year. There are sound reasons for being cautious about mixing politics and religion, given the track record. Nevertheless, it remains a valid question to ask whether there are any teachings of the Buddha that can shed light on the difficult process of making a choice at the ballot box.
To begin with there is the question of whether one should vote at all. As it happens there is one text that bears directly upon the governance of a republic. This is the Buddha's advice to the Vajjians as to how their republic may last a long time and avoid foreign control. Amongst other things, he advised them that if they met frequently, and if those meetings were well attended, then they could expect growth and not decline. So it appears the Buddha recognized the importance of participation in the civic affairs of the community.
The casting of a ballot is a decision. The voter decides which persons, parties and policies are most appropriate for the governing of the country. Republics of the Buddha's time were really direct rule oligarchies and we should not expect to find advice about voting in representative democracies. Nevertheless, there is some very salient advise about making decisions in general which can be applied to this particular case.
In a number of contexts, the Buddha taught a list of four negative factors to be avoided when making a decision. These are fear, greed, hatred and confusion. If a person examines her mind and sees that it is free of these factors, then she can be confident that the decision is a sound one. If, on the contrary, her decision is guided in large part by one or more of these factors, then it can only lead to further problems, coming as it does from a defiled source.
One thing that is disturbing to contemplate is how much of our contemporary politics is based upon appeals to just these factors.
The politics of fear, for example, is in evidence whenever a politician uses citizens' insecurity about crime to advocate policies like weakening the Charter of Rights, rejecting prison reform or restoring the death penalty. A rational plan would look carefully at which policies could prevent crime and rehabilitate the criminal. If the decisions are made from fear, they will always take the form of harshness and brutality, which experience and statistics indicate leads to even more crime in the long run.
The politics of hatred singles out a minority group to blame for society's ills. The politics of confusion is used by politicians of all stripes when they mislead the public with biased statistics or outright misinformation. The recent trend toward paid advertisements by governments is a prime example of this. Mostly these commercials are shallow hype with very low information content. An attempt to induce confusion at the the taxpayer's own expense!
And of course, the politics of greed hardly needs comment at a time when the parties are talking tax cuts while the educational, medical and civic infrastructures are all crumbling from neglect.
The final responsibility is with the voter, not the politician. We get the leadership we deserve. Appeals to these base instincts would not work if the public rose above them. The citizen ought to oppose fear with courage, hatred with compassion, greed with generosity and confusion with the facts. Armed with these positive factors he can make a sound choice. It may be that people are becoming ready for such leadership. The recent national outpouring of grief for Pierre Trudeau demonstrates that the nostalgia for a leader that appealed to our better natures, and not our darkest impulses.