An anniversary post, and a political plea

Today, the Engaged Mindfulness blog turns five years old.  In preparation for  this fifth-anniversary milestone, I recently scrolled back to my first post, “The Paradox of ‘Engaged Mindfulness'”, published on October 18th, 2011.  As I re-read it, I was struck by two things. First was the epigraph that opened the piece, from Thich Nhat Hahn – “Mindfulness must be engaged.  Once there is seeing, there must be acting.  Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”  This quote still resonates deeply with me.  If the mindful awareness we cultivate in meditation does not impact the ways in which we engage with others, and with the world at large, then indeed, what is the use?

I’ll come back to this question shortly.

The second thing that struck me was that this initial post from five years ago looked back three years further, to the presidential election of 2008.  During the final months of that election campaign, I had begun to notice that every week, while sitting with my Tuesday evening meditation group, I was experiencing a mild feeling of guilt for being there practicing mindfulness instead of being with my local phone bank group making calls for Barack Obama.  It seemed to me at the time that there was an either/or decision to be made – either go to meditation or go to the phone bank.  It felt wrong to be splitting out my nights, doing both practice and politics, instead of choosing a priority and keeping to that one alone.

But, as is so often the case with an either/or, I was creating a false dichotomy for myself. Over time, with more careful investigation of that guilt I had been feeling, I came to realize that there is no inherent contradiction between the act of political engagement and the practice of mindfulness – unless one holds the two of them as separate, unrelated activities.  I concluded that “… engagement with the world and commitment to goals … exist side-by-side with mindfulness practice and non-attachment to outcome.  Considered separately, the two pull us in opposite directions.  Considered together, they push us down the same path.”

Now, here we are on the verge of the 2016 presidential election, and interestingly enough, once again I find myself thinking about the relationship between “engaged mindfulness” and electoral politics. Only this time, what I’m concerned with is not some conceptual paradox in the idea of engaged mindfulness, but rather the pragmatic utility of the practice of engaged mindfulness.

So, to get back to the opening question, what is the use of this practice?

In the above quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, his question “Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” is rhetorical.  Hinging as it does on the immediately preceding assertion, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting”, the only possible answer to it is “Sadly, no use whatsoever”.  From his perspective, seeing (mindfulness) is useful precisely because it leads to acting (becoming engaged).  The clear implication of the plaintive “otherwise, what is the use?” is that seeing that does not lead to acting, mindfulness without engagement, is useless.

As we in the United States approach an election whose two possible outcomes – either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the 45th president of our country – portend radically different consequences not just for the future of America, but for practically every other country in the world, I will argue that Thich Nhat Hahn’s perspective is not just correct, not merely compelling, but in fact compulsory.

Seeing must lead to acting.  Mindfulness must be engaged.

Accordingly, in this fifth-anniversary post, I am joining my practice with my politics, and declaring not just that Hillary Clinton is unquestionably the better candidate to be the next president, but that Donald Trump is unquestionably the most unfit candidate to run for president in my lifetime, and arguably the most unfit to run in the entire history of this country.

The case against Trump has already been made persuasively and passionately by countless pundits and commentators. Here are three recent pronouncements that I find particularly compelling – first an editorial from The New York Times, then an endorsement by the editors of The Atlantic magazine, and finally these remarks from first lady Michelle Obama.

For my part, I would like to add two more criteria – both drawn from the Buddhist teachings upon which I base my mindfulness meditation practice – by which Trump’s unfitness for the presidency can be measured.

The first criterion is “skillful speech”.   The teachings tell us that in any verbal communication – spoken, written, or social media post – one should always choose one’s words and one’s tone so as to promote the wellbeing of those to whom the communication is addressed, and, where possible, to lessen any pain or suffering they may be undergoing.

By this standard, Trump’s speeches, interviews, tweets, debate performances, and all his other public pronouncements from the first day of his candidacy display a level of unskillfulness never before seen in American politics.  What would be the effect on our country, and on the world, of having such unskillful speech spouting from the mouth of the United States president for the next four years?

The second criterion is what the teachings describe as the threefold virtues exhibited by one who is cultivating mindfulness – generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  And, more to the point at hand, the teachings also describe what manifests in the absence of these three virtues – greed, hatred, and delusion.  Call to mind any incident of Trump’s behavior throughout the campaign, and consider whether it was one of these virtues, or rather their opposite, that was on display.

I’m sure that you will find that these three virtues are always absent, and that their reprehensible opposites are always present.  And once again, consider what the effect would be to have all that greed, hatred, and delusion as the guiding forces on the person occupying the Oval Office for the next four years.

On both of these criteria, then, I conclude that Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.

And, on both of these criteria, Hillary Clinton is more than fit.

For the sake of the wellbeing of everyone on the planet, may she soon become the 45th president of the United States.


Writing this post has been one way for me to follow Thich Nhat Hahn’s dictum that “mindfulness must be engaged”.  I hope that reading it will prompt you to follow his wise words in your own way.

“Once there is seeing, there must be acting.  Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”






About Tom Cummings

I've been a political liberal for the past fifty years, and a committed secular Buddhist for the last ten. As I move forward with my personal practice of Buddhism, and as I take note of the increasingly tribalistic "us-against-them" tenor of political discourse in countries across the globe (most notably here in my own United States), I appreciate more and more how much these two worthy traditions - liberalism and Buddhism - share in common. My intention in writing this blog is to provide a forum for the exploration of these overlapping values, and how their confluence might relate to current issues affecting American citizens and the global community. Two convictions underlie the posts that will appear here: (1) Buddhism's invitation for us to embrace generosity, compassion, and wisdom offers a clear path for resolving our national and global problems effectively and humanely; and (2) liberalism, by virtue of the high value it places on the social good, is the natural home for a politically engaged and pragmatically meaningful Buddhism.
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9 Responses to An anniversary post, and a political plea

  1. smilecalm says:

    thank you for taking
    the right action
    and expressing it
    so well & compassionately
    here, Tom 🙂


    • Tom Cummings says:

      Thank you as well, for taking the time to comment. I especially appreciate your reference to right speech and right action, the two aspects of the eightfold path that I was attempting to keep foremost in mind as I wrote this post. Take care …



  2. erikleo says:

    Trump is certainly the most unfit person to stand in a democratic election, ever! I said to my brother recently, “Can you imagine children seeing him on TV; it


    • erikleo says:

      is worse than subjecting them to pornography or violence!” I was thinking of how he violates all sense of decency.
      Like your opening quote; similar to the phrase; the practice has to go beyond sitting on your cushion.


      • Tom Cummings says:

        Thanks, Erik! I keep wondering how things could have degraded to such a state that a person like him can even become a candidate for the presidency. No matter who wins this election, there will be much work to do to repair the damage he’s already inflicted on the country. So yes, we will have to continue, in your felicitous phrase, “to go beyond sitting”.



  3. Pingback: What now? | Engaged Mindfulness

  4. Splendidly written piece, Tom. And now we’re in the horror, the horror…


  5. Pingback: A perspective on the upcoming Democratic candidate debates – The Liberal Buddhist

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