Buddhism Engaging: the Zen of Electoral Canvassing

In 2004, Stan Dewey, Ed Herzog, and Melody Ermachild Chavis, three members of the Berkeley Zen Center, conceived of using Buddhist practice to sustain and inform door-to-door campaigning. And in every election cycle since, a group of practitioners has assembled to campaign, to cook, contribute financially, and/or host.

Election Retreat

Meditator with I Voted buttonIf you put the two words “election” and “retreat” together, what do you have? Not withdrawal from the electoral process, as in voter apathy. Nor escape, after a disappointing result, to lick wounds. In this case, you have something more like an autumnal summer camp for the politically impassioned, mixed with a Zen meditation retreat.

In 2006, I experienced my first election retreat, and our group helped send Jerry McNerney to Congress as Representative of California’s District #11. In 2010, we joined his re-election effort. Nine of us made a commitment of at least three days of participation during the week prior to Tuesday, November 2. We met each morning to sit zazen.

Enter the meditation room, palms together in gassho. Skylights in the ceiling pitch, fall light falling. Slight bow to an altar populated by small Buddhas, a candle, a bowl of petals. Accumulated minutes, hours, fingering the lifeline of the breath. Bathing in beauty at day’s start.

After morning meditation, we journeyed by car to campaign headquarters in the strip mall world of Dublin, California, and from there to stucco row houses on circular streets, to gritty or gingerbread neighborhoods, in search of motivatable voters. Few were home on a weekday afternoon, at least till it was time for World Series games, when fewer still wanted to talk to us. Back in our cars, we caught the remains of the game by radio, and traveled back to Berkeley where hot polenta lasagna or black bean enchiladas were waiting for us. Our own numbers diminished from previous years, a question hovered over dinner. Ko vocalized it: “Are we doing any good?”

The candidate, Jerry McNerney, (at left) with Buddhist canvasser Ko Blix in 2006.

This prompted a brief discussion of chaos theory. Might two election-canvas door hangers on a doorknob in San Ramon flap their wings together and change the weather at a polling place in the nearby town of Pleasanton on election day? How do we place those door hangers? Reverently? “I put McNerney with his friendly glance facing outward, and the Democratic slate behind that.” Some of us wrote notes. “Sorry I missed you. Your vote is critical.”

What’s more, are the leaders we have helped elect doing enough good?

“I am so disappointed in Obama,” said Ed. “I really thought he would be different.” Catherine said, “We are seeking to enlarge the good, of anyone or anything. Change is a paradox — for ourselves and for our leaders. As spiritual teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Things are perfect just as they are, and they could use some improvement.’”

Then the meditation bell rang and cleaned the air, summoning a period of sitting, a night of rest.

Also after morning zazen, there were usually dharma talks.

Visitor Sara Weintraub of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship spoke to us of author Joanna Macy’s theory: three strands of change through activism. One is a holding, preventing further harm. Two, reimagining institutions. Three, practice. We discussed whether we can tie our work to each of these strands. The first, yes: we are holding the line against the trigger-happy tendencies, gospel of greed, and corporate congruence of Republican leadership. Second, yes: we are reviving a miniature public square. Conversation with another human about democracy is radical. Third, yes: clearly, we are practicing.

Canvassing door to door

Member of the Buddhist team, Rob Lyons (left), canvasses door to door, 2008, Reno, CA.

One afternoon, I found myself in Stockton, by the violent rapids of Interstate 5, at apartments, houses, where I could not hear myself knock. In this neighborhood of streets named for the war-between-the-states, you must cross the Alleghenies and Cumberland Gap to get to a private residence, on a street no one’s heard of, which will be your polling place. (But we could see the world in Ed’s GPS, and brought back directions.) Marshall came to the door with dried blobs of shaving cream on his cheeks and chin, and said he saw no use in voting. I gave him my spiel, “It’s a small but vital part of trying to make this a real democracy. Like the blow-out preventer on the Deepwater Horizon. If electoral control falls into greedy, reckless hands, then cataclysmic damage can occur.” He said, “I liked it when Clinton was president. Then I had a job. I like working, but now I’ve gave up! And I really shouldn’t ‘cause I have kids of my own now.” He wanted to seal our conversation with a pledge to vote and a handshake. How blood rushes to the hands when one is doing passionate work.

Judy encountered a man who called stem cell researchers — and their “special interest politicians” — baby killers. She pointed out that even George W. Bush supported this life-saving realm of study. The voter fixed his stare and called them all baby-killers.

We know that someone challenged the Buddha, saying, “Who are you to meditate and try to find enlightenment?” Buddha could not answer in words. In nonverbal response, he slowly touched the ground. Or as Victor Hugo said, “Music is what you use when words are inadequate but something must be said.” Or one might speak to that voter in poetry. Some sparks catch on and make a blaze. Others flutter out.

Saturday in Stockton, a big, tough father came to the door.

“I don’t want any. Go away.”

“I’m sorry. Maybe the game has started? Would you just like your polling place address?”

“No. The game hasn’t started. No, I don’t want my polling place address. No. No. No. I just want to do this at my own pace.”

How did I back away? Bowing? Hands in gassho? I only know that I felt compassion, heard a cry of pain in his last statement.

In the car Lynn said, “Leave people with hope. Even practice nonviolent driving. Back in the day, when I was traveling with Cesar Chavez, he was late for a speaking engagement. We had gone the wrong way down a dirt road. The driver backed into a row of sunflowers, turning around. Chavez got out of the VW bus and started giving floral first aid. The driver begged departure. Chavez said, ‘No. If we allow violence to the flowers, next it’s to the people.’”

The author, at right, with Stan Dewey, one of the initiators of the election retreat.

Election day strategy is known as “knock and drag,” (knock on the door, drag ‘em to the polls).  When it was dark and we were tired, Stan and I also tried “phone and persuade” right up to a quarter to eight. After the polls closed, and we had munched our way through a dinner-equivalent at the premature “victory” party, I felt so low. Bleak certainties around the country. Worrisome uncertainties in California. Boxer behind. McNerney behind. But in the morning, the Secretary of State’s website showed Boxer having won, and McNerney with a 121-vote lead.

Was It Worth Doing?

McNerney’s official electoral victory came weeks later, shortly before his vote to extend the Bush tax cuts even to the wealthiest two percent of the population. My disappointment was profound at this, and at Obama’s later surrender on the same issue.

Does this frustration tarnish our experience and offerings? Answers will differ, but here’s how I think about it. In sum: a group of people shows up, cheered on by members of their community. They consecrate time to listen to the breath, to each other’s stories of activist pasts, to cries of help from fellow citizens. They are making some kind of a dandelion chain: self to spirit or inspiration, self to small and caring group, group to a geography of doors and faces in one congressional district, face recognition with the congressman. Dandelion phone lines to his office. And we can say, “Tell him I’m one of the Buddhists who campaigned for him in 2006 and 2010, and I do not approve.”

the candidate and Stan Dewey

Jerry McNerney and Stan Dewey, 2006.

One doesn’t need radioactive dye to see where the principal blockages are in this system. The corporate wall that makes Congress a gated community, the large-screen TVs that stupefy so much of our population so much of the time. But upstart dandelions do insinuate roots into these walls. Dandelions also multiply — and we need a movement.

The model of “election retreat” could be applied more broadly. The street musician movement already has comparable elements: a band coming together, practicing, using art in service of political causes, lifting spirits of other activists, stimulating political awakenings, with the side benefit of publicity. A collective of cooks who shop, chop and stir up homemade soup and cornbread can fortify bodies and a sense of well-being. Researchers can prepare meaningful campaign literature and fact sheets. Visual artists can make icons. Writers, videographers tell the stories.

But it comes back to sitting down — at the table of traditions that emphasize patience and listening; making offerings of time to spirit and/or inspiration; weaving supportive community. These pursuits generate light, which can guide even in dark political times.

Photo Credits: All but the one at top are by Ko Blix.


2 thoughts on “Buddhism Engaging: the Zen of Electoral Canvassing

  1. thank you for revealing a new style of campaigning that is life sustaining! positive! respectful!! this is the kind of activity that can, i believe, repair the world. when i/we campaign in the “traditional mode” of anger, criticism, negativity/fear, we’re not honoring ourselves, the process of elections/voting, or the foundations on which the country was founded: we must learn new ways, different ways to counter what is seeking to change the very basic tenets of american society, & what you’re doing, have shared w/us, is a great start! anger/criticism/negativity & fear continue to break-down, and do not, in & of themselves, contribute to repair or the healing of ills–not in our own lives/bodies, or in society. how to let go of traditional forms which never really worked, but are familiar, and move to a new way is a challenge for all of us, & i am willing to trust & believe we’re up to it, & together, can achieve our goals.

  2. Thanks for your inspiring article. Our local sangha here in Denver is doing a series on “Engaged Buddhism.” I will forward a link to your article to our sangha leader, Lloyd Burton.