EDITORIAL: America’s first Buddhist president

America’s first Buddhist president

Pssst! Did you hear? Obama’s not a secret Muslim — he’s a Buddhist.

No, this isn’t the latest internet rumor, nor is it intended to become one, but if it turned out that our next president had a secret identity, the discovery that he was a Buddhist would merely seem like confirmation of so many tell-tale signs.

A practitioner of the “Middle Way” who mindfully treads the path between extremes; someone who understands that clear-eyed awareness requires an inner stillness, unruffled by turbulent emotions; someone who discerns truth in the complex web of inter-dependent relations; someone who recognizes that individual well being and our collective destiny are inextricably bound together — you don’t need to know much about Buddhism as a doctrine or a religion to see that in the psychological, social, and philosophical outline I just described, there’s a familiar ring. It sounds a great deal like you-know-who.

How is it that at the end of one of the longest of political campaigns, after a relentless struggle during which attacks rained down like showers of arrows and then finally at a moment that marks a turning point not only in the history of this nation but for the whole world — how is it that such a moment could be met with the equanimity that Barack Obama displayed on the night of November 4, 2008?

To say that Obama is “cool” is to invest that phrase with way more meaning than it was meant to carry.

Calm, serene, self-assured — none of these phrases quite captures the poise that Obama has displayed over the arc of his presidential campaign or in its fulfillment.

His deft maneuver is that he knows how to reach into the future without stretching out of the present. His understanding of possibility interlocks with his experience of actuality.

This is a perspective and way of being that most people stumble around. It requires a depth of self-knowledge or psychological groundedness sufficient to allay self-doubt. And it requires a fluid form of confidence that has not settled into the mold of a rigid personal identity.

Obama knows his own mind without being confined by it.


The fact that Obamamania has produced supporters who seem more like devotees is a phenomenon which understandably raised concerns among many observers during the campaign. At the same time it provided another window into Obama’s character.

In a real personality cult, adulation and self-aggrandizement feed upon one another. The beloved and his lovers participate in a collective narcissistic feedback loop.

The only way someone can remain impervious to the insidious effects of the idealized projections of others is by being convinced that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, being at the center of massive attention does not place one at the center of the universe.

When Obama says this is not about me, it’s about you, he really means it. Were it not so, the corrupting effect of so much unalloyed admiration would by now be all too evident.

The paradox of Obama’s arrival at the pinnacle of power is that while so many around him are reveling in a giddy mix of elation, relief, anticipation and amazement, the man at the center of what has become a global fascination is fully engaged yet quietly detached.

Even though Obama is no saint and is just as vulnerable as anyone else to the intoxicating effect of power, he has managed to get this far without being seduced by a mania that, in part, helped elevate him to the presidency.

As he said on the night of his election:

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington — it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime — two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America — I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you — we as a people will get there.


Does all of this add up to evidence that the president-elect is a secret Buddhist? Of course not. Let’s simply say we just elected a leader whose understanding of himself brings a rounded intelligence and rooted vision rarely seen in a position of such extraordinary power.

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10 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: America’s first Buddhist president

  1. Kevin McLin

    Nicely put, Paul. It’s good to have an intelligent, thoughtful grownup headed for the White House, isn’t it?

  2. Phil Sheehan

    I’ve been similarly impressed; I suppose millions of us have. You summed it up nicely, though, “fully engaged yet quietly detached.”

    His victory may not yet be fully appreciated, because it is balanced against McCain’s defeat. (Granted, the wars, the economy, the total Bush legacy, would have dragged anyone down.)

    Supposing however some other GOP candidate had emerged. Our natural inclination is to presume that, facing Romney for instance, Obama would have run the same campaign, and perhaps would then have lost. But that ignores what we are slowly beginning to recognize as the full range of Obama’s skills and potential. Had the GOP nominated someone else, Obama might have run a different campaign. The one he ran was one designed to defeat McCain. The more I watch the man, the more I believe that — among so many other things — he could have tailored a winning campaign to defeat whomever he faced.

  3. Wellness Writer

    I couldn’t agree more. Having listening to President Bush and Vice President Cheney for the last eight years, it is such a breath of fresh air to listen to President Elect Obama who is so intelligent, and so thoughtful, yet mindful of the complexity of the times in which we live.

    I was increasingly concerned as I watched Senator McCain run a campaign that was so amoral, so manic, and so disjointed that I worried about his fitness for office. And to combine that with Governor Palin’s Pit bull politics was more than I could bear.

    How wonderful to know that we will have a president who embodies calmness and coolness and grace under pressure when we need it most!

  4. Carol Elkins

    You have confirmed a hypothesis about various religions which I have long held. The qualities which they claim to embody and to foster are actually universal and appear randomly in the population, just like high intelligence does! No religion has a monopoly on the spiritual qualities which it claims to profess.

  5. Ian Arbuckle

    So far I have heard people compare Obama to Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and even Jesus Christ. But common, you’re pulling our leg aren’t ya’, a Bodhisattva he aint!

    You write : A practitioner of the “Middle Way” who mindfully treads the path between extremes; someone who understands that clear-eyed awareness requires an inner stillness, unruffled by turbulent emotions; someone who discerns truth in the complex web of inter-dependent relations; someone who recognizes that individual well being and our collective destiny are inextricably bound together —

    How does that jibe with:
    “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided”
    “We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs,”
    Or even
    “Hezbollah attacked Israel. By using Lebanon as an outpost for terrorism, and innocent people as shields, Hezbollah has also engulfed that entire nation in violence and conflict,
    and threatened the fledgling movement for democracy there.”

    Did you think that those statements reflected an understanding of the individual well being and a collective destiny which included the Palestinian or Lebanese people….

    Personally I thought it sounded more like a typical American political animal accepting the mantle and forswearing to satisfy that powerful club of Zionist zealots, who use their membership and influence to guarantee US sponsorship and support Israel’s theft of land, illegal occupation, and dispensation of state terror, thereby Obama secured his vital stamp of approval from the Jewish lobby without which he could not have even hoped to qualify to be considered for presidency of the land of the free and the brave.

    But in the Buddhist view relativism is essential and there are many ways to speak or to hear the same words, as pointed out by Richard Silverstein (in his blog) who quotes from the Jerusalem Post :
    “…a campaign adviser clarified Thursday that Obama believes “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement that they both can live with.”
    “Two principles should apply to any outcome,” which the adviser gave as: “Jerusalem remains Israel’s capital and it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.”
    Not every politician can get away with this sort of rhetorical “nimbleness.” What he’s done is mollify the AIPAC crowd with his original statement. And in the follow-up he’s expressed what I believe is his true policy agenda. And he’s artfully fudged the difference by referring to the division of Jerusalem between the War of Independence and 1967 War. Personally, I believe most people will give him the benefit of the doubt.”

    Nicely devicive, but if I was Palestinian, Syrian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Iranian, Somali or N. Korean, etc. etc., I would not hold my breath because Obama used the word “change” either. It’s all relative!

  6. MSH

    Sorry folks I have no doubt of potentialities for U No WHo.
    But appointing Ruhm Emmanuel as Chief of State disqualifies the “hope”.
    For Ruhm Emmanuel is a a zionist bigot that would just as well kill every Palastinian in Palastine as he would any excuse to initiate sending missles into Iran.

    With his history and his background I would not expect much Dharmic deeds in this live time.
    However, CHANGE is Possible if People are heard and Direct their unity is strong in holding the leaders accountable for their actions.
    Remember it is said by Mohammed (I think)
    “Have Faith but, …tie up your camel!”

  7. Paul Woodward

    “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah” – from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad compiled by Al-Tirmidhi (from what I could glean from Google).

    As for Rahm Emanuel being a hardcore Zionist, from what I hear inside DC, this is getting overstated. What his father did in Irgun and what he did in the IDF tells us nothing about how he will operate as Obama’s chief of staff.

    Since Obama promises to be a thoroughly hands-on president, I envisage Emanuel being loyal to the objectives of his boss and not the Zionist trojan horse that some want to portray him as.

  8. Caroline McKinnon

    The clever photo choices certainly match the intriguing headline.
    Here’s a couple of concerns I have, though, based on observations and my own past experience: whenever we place anyone,anyone at all, be they a lover, an elected official, a spiritual leader,or a president on such a high pedestal, sooner or later they do fall off, as they are mere mortals after all. When that inevitability occurs, when we realize that their sweat gets stinky just like anyone else’s, we blame them for letting us down, lying even and the shouting matches begin. Look, I voted for Obama for all the usual reasons but am careful about the height of the pedestal. I also voted for him for another reason. As an expatriot British woman, I recall my parents during the 50’s, when I still lived at home in London, disgusted by McCarthyism, the hypocrisy of a country that touted its democratic ways, as if they had invented democracy in the first place, shoving it down the throats of the rest of us, while denying civil rights to blacks who were such a vital part of the American war effort, heroes abroad and second class at home. You know, it should not come as a great surprise that the image of America abroad has not been very shiny for many more years than the recent past eight under Bush. So, I voted for Obama partly so that the rest of the world can finally cross out that aspect of hypocrisy,from whatever else may still be on their anti American grievance list. Great that Obama’s demeanor is that of a wise and patient leader, but let’s keep it real.

  9. Nash

    Phenomenal! This is surely an impressive piece.

    I am a Thai Buddhist who contribute to a weekly column, Zen Sense, in Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper. Last Friday (Nov 21), our editorial board decided to move my story on Obama, titled, “The Mindful Candidate,” to be featured as the sole cover story.

    I came across your article by accident today and was impressed at your deep understanding of Buddhism and your creativity in writing about Obama from this angle, assuming you have grown up in a non-Buddhist background. I especially like it when you mention “mindfulness” early on. You obviously know what you are talking about!

    I hope you don’t mind that I share your story with my compatriots.

    I have been receiving similar feedback for my article like you do. Most readers (local and international) like it while a few are skeptical. American readers in particular are usually gracious. Some American Zen practitioners also shared their thoughts with me, which is not much different from your article above.

    In case you want to hear it from a non-American Buddhist living in a Buddhist country, Paul, you are more than welcome to drop by and give me your thoughts. Here is the link to the article.



    Nash Siamwalla
    Bangkok, Thailand

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