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America’s first Buddhist president?

November 13, 2008

From War in Context
By Paul Woodward

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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