BG 133: Erik Curren: The Buddhist Politician

Episode Description:

Erik Curren is a business leader, community activist, author, Buddhist meditator, and politician—who is running for state legislature in Virginia during the 2010 election period. We were contacted by Erik’s campaign manager, who told us that Erik’s Buddhist background was causing a backlash of religious intolerance from some camps, including his fellow Democrats. We spoke with Erik about the importance of religious freedom in American politics, as well as about the way that the Bodhisattva ideal impacts his work as a politician.

Finally, we speak with Erik about his first book, Buddha’s Not Smiling, which explored some of the issues behind the current controversy between the two young men who both claim to be reincarnations of the 16th Karmapa–the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school. It turns out that there is corruption and misunderstanding in Tibetan politics, just as there are in American politics.

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Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. I am here today in an interviewing marathon. This is my third interview in the past three days and I’ve got two more to go. So, I am getting in the groove here. Today I am with Erik Curren. He’s joining me from Virginia. Thank you Erik for taking the time to speak with us.

Erik: I’m very glad to be here.

Vince: Yeah, just a little background. I actually got an email from your campaign manager who told me that there is some controversy going on. You are running for the 20th District in Virginia for the General Assembly, which is kind of the state level Congress. I guess you are the Democratic nominee for that position?

Erik: Yes, that’s correct.

Vince: OK. Got you. There is some controversy because you are a person with multiple faith backgrounds. And, of course the reason we are speaking with you is because one of them happens to be Buddhism. So, this is an interesting controversy because it seems like you are getting some kickback from the community. But I heard that you are getting quite a bit of direct intolerance from people who really don’t seem to understand someone that has a multiple faith background. And your other background is with the Methodist tradition, right?

Erik: Well, not that it is an Episcopal primarily. My wife now, who was my fiancé last week… We just got married a couple of days ago.

Vince: Congrats!

Erik: My wife goes to Methodist church and I’ve gone to Episcopal churches for many years. But, yes, I go to church and I am interested in Buddhism. And, I do yoga and a bunch of other stuff too. But Buddhism has always for about the last 10 years has held a special place of interest for me. I meditate in the Tibetan tradition. And, I’ve been very interested in Buddhist history and Buddhist teachings for a long time.

So, when you ask about controversy in my race, well over the last couple of weeks it has become an issue that I go to Christian churches and I also do Buddhist meditation. And, I am not really sure how widespread the concern has been. There was one man in particular, who was actually a fellow democrat, which was a bit surprising to me, who brought up in a newspaper interview, he thought my religion should be an issue in the campaign and he wanted to make sure that people knew about it.

And, so we got a variety of letters to the editor, comments online, communications received directly by my campaign. I would say 80 percent supportive keep on saying that religion should not be an issue in a political campaign in the United States, especially in the state of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson created a very famous document in our Commonwealth, the Virginia Statute for Religion Freedom, which was passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 and that’s the very body that I am campaigning to become a member of.

But, Thomas Jefferson in that document, which is a founding document of the Commonwealth of Virginia, explicitly laid out that there can be no religious test for candidates to the public office that you’re… basically, it’s a non-issue. Your religion or lack of religion cannot be used as a qualification to hold a public office.

And, so we had many people who apparently strongly hold to the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and the tradition of religious freedom in the Commonwealth of Virginia, who were disappointed, who were surprised, who were in some cases outraged that this fellow and apparently a small number of people who agreed with him were trying to divide people on our community over the issue of religious faith.

And, so it’s really been very heartening to me and on my campaign that so many people came forward supporting me in my community and then it’s been quite heartening as well that the Buddhist community around the United States and then even further appealed has expressed a great deal of support for me. So, I see like even though this was a trying-out episode, overall it’s turned out to be very positive.

Vince: And, what do you think the core issue is with people who want to point to you with a background in Buddhist tradition? Do you feel like they are afraid you have non-theistic religious background? What is going on there?

Erik: You know, I can only really guess as to what somebody’s motivation is in their own head, and in their own conscience. The interesting thing that has happened in my race is I am running in a rural area, which has been strongly republican for many years and the incumbent through the four-term incumbent, and as people know, I am sure of it, incumbency is an advantage of political races. I knew it was going to be a very difficult race, running against this incumbent, but three weeks ago he dropped out of the race, it was quite a surprise, nobody expected him to do it. So interestingly it was only a few days after the incumbent dropped out of my race that these criticisms about my religion started to arise. So, before, when I didn’t have as much of a chance of winning the race as I do now, maybe they regretted that they didn’t run, and maybe they thought that if my religious faith became enough of an issue, that it would create a space for them to run for the seat, which now all the sudden looks much more attainable. That’s one possible guess I have.

The only other possible motivation that I can think of is that people are confused and sometimes scared by things they don’t understand. And I think when many people hear the word “Buddhism” in the United States and particularly in a rural area, they’ve never met a Buddhist, or someone who’s interested in Buddhism. They don’t know what people do in Buddhist practice. They don’t know what Buddhism teaches. They may have seen the Dalai Lama on TV, that may be about it. They may have heard a bunch of rumors and misinformation from their friends, and perhaps in their congregations–their own congregations, that Buddhism is exotic it’s foreign it’s Asian, and people have a hard time accepting, or understanding something that seems very different from what they’re used to.

So what I’ve been trying to do, I’m trying to walk a fine line. I’m not discussing my religious faith as a qualification to hold office, because that would be taking the religious test, that Thomas Jefferson said was unconstitutional in the state of Virginia. But what I am trying to do is relate to other people’s faith on a level that we all can share. I think all religious faiths have certain moral tenets in common. They all teach love, they all teach the pursuit of truth, they all teach altruism and caring for your neighbors and your community. And for me my faith traditions have been a strong emphasis for me to run for public office, to serve the community. In Buddhism they have the Bodhisattva ideal of serving others, of serving all sentient of beings. In Christianity they have the example of Jesus and the golden rule and the value of loving thy neighbor as you would yourself.

So I feel like whether it’s Christianity, or Buddhism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Secular Humanism, that all of us of different faiths, or no faith at all, share a common core of values, which by the way are American values. And that if we can see faith as something that brings us together on a higher plane, we can make politics a little bit better. And so I have been trying to take this positive message out into the campaign now, against those who preach intolerance or who try to divide people using fear of the unknown. I strongly oppose bigotry and intolerance and I said that I’ll fight against it, wherever it occurs. And I’m trying to be a force to bring people together in this campaign.

Vince: So, you mentioned Thomas Jefferson, and some of the… can’t remember the name of the religious test, thing, that was passed in Virginia, but it sounds like he was a primary figure for you. And one thing I’ve run across that I found really interesting and relevant to this conversation is a conversation I heard between Steven Walden who’s the founder of BeliefNet, and he who also a book recently called Founding Faith. And I heard a conversation between he and Krista Tippet on the Speaking of Faith show. In that conversation he was explaining that the birth of religious tolerance in America wasn’t actually a secularist movement like it is now. It was actually brought about by eighteenth century evangelical Christians. And I thought that was just, incredible.

That made me think that the history of religious tolerance is really something that’s changed over time. It used to be about protecting other Christians from persecution or other Theists from persecution. And now it seems to be more of a secular thing, about letting even religions that are radically different in some ways, like Buddhism or even Atheism, to be a normal part of the political campaign. And like you’re saying, it’s not as though you can use someone’s religious, or not even having religious ties, as a prerequisite as them running for office, that that really should be a non-issue. So I was wondering if you could just respond to that perspective and if you have any thoughts on how and why this is such a big issue now in our current time?

Erik: Well you look back at many things in the past in America, some of our highest ideals people may have looked at them a little bit different when they first came about. When we talked about all men being created equal in the old days, of course we had slavery. So we didn’t treat all men or all men and women equally. We defined who was a valid person and who wasn’t. And now we’ve expanded that definition. I think it’s not just a question of us having a different opinion than back then but I think we’re right and they were wrong. I think things are better in America today than they were back then as far as equal rights and recognizing the humanity of people who are in fact human. It just seems more accurate. And I guess I would say about the same thing for religion.

Yes now in America, we have a variety of what religious scholar Diana Eck called “new religion.” Instead of a lot of different flavors of Christianity, now we have a lot of different flavors of spirituality. So we’re not just talking about Baptists and Mennonites versus Episcopalian, Anglicans and Presbyterians, but we’re talking about all sorts of different kinds of Christians, a wonderful variety that you have in Protestant Christianity and even in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that are represent in my district, in the 20th district, which is a rural area. But you also have Muslims, Hindu, Sikhs, people who practice traditional African faiths, people who practice traditional Chinese religion. You have Christians from Asia who are sometimes different from Christians from America. You have Protestants from Latin American who are different from Protestants in America. And then you have Secular Humanists, and you have people who are interested in Buddhism. And Jews of course. In my town for example, we have a synagogue which nearly 150 years old. It was founded by a major in the confederate army.

In my hometown of Stanton in my district, the 20th district, had a long tradition of religious power. And I think now the folks there who I’ve found not to be particularity stuck in their opinions about religion. In fact I find most folks in my area to be quite open-minded, to be independent thinkers. The folks who came to the Shenandoah Valley came from somewhere else and often many of then were persecuted, just like the Evangelical Christians in the eighteenth century in the United States. The folks who came to the Shenandoah Valley some of them were Evangelical Christians who were Mennonites and Bretheren from Pennsylvania. Some were Anabaptists from Germany. Some were Jews. And my area has always put out the welcome mat for folks of different faiths, or folks with no faiths, or indeterminate faiths like Thomas Jefferson. So I see that my area is still putting out that welcome mat. Folks from these newer religions are still being welcomed with open arms. And I think that’s a very cheering development for me.

It makes me feel like American democracy is working, that our basic values allow us to keep expanding who we consider to be an American. Who we consider to be someone who we have more in common then we have differences between us; people with whom we are able to hold a civil discussion. With whom we’re able to do business. With whom we’re able to sit on volunteer boards and even visit each other’s congregations and talk about each other’s faith in a spirit of openness, love, and acceptance of differences. And so to me I see that the fundamental principles on which the United States was founded are flexible enough that they are able to accommodate folks for whom maybe they weren’t originally written. And to me that means that our basic form of government still works.

Vince: Fantastic. That’s a beautiful vision. It’s really inspiring. And it sounds like it’s alive too, which is cool.

Erik: It really is alive. Unfortunately, there are a few misguided leaders who would attempt to take us back into the past. Who would attempt to whip up frenzy, whip up fear, and whip up misunderstanding. But I think most people, especially in my area, aren’t having it. Most people in my area, they’re friendly, they have strong sense of community, and they do a lot of volunteer work. They like to get along with their neighbors. And I’m seeing the best sort of natural organic tolerance. It’s very strong for humanity and for the continued development of our area in particular, and I think for the United States in general. I’m actually quite optimistic about Americans. I think once we get over our fear of the unknown, or the unfamiliar, that we’re pretty good people.

Vince: Now I’m wondering to what degree, because you talked about the Bodhisattva vow. To what degree has that and your own Buddhist practice encouraged you to want to become a political servant? Because this is a topic that’s not that common in Western convert Buddhist circles, which is actively participating in governance. Usually the sense I get, and this is just a broad generalization, but a lot of convert Buddhists that are Westerners tend to have a little bit of a disdain toward politics actually I notice. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that too.

Erik: I think in certain kinds of Buddhism, as I’ve seen in certain kinds of Christianity, there is a strain of asceticism or withdrawing from the world. In Buddhism, I’ve met many fine people who are monks and nuns or who’ve done extended retreats in isolation. I have so much admiration for these folks who’ve given up so many things, sometimes marriages and families and really satisfying promising careers in order to devote themselves to contemplation, which of course has a very long tradition in Christian monasticism as well. These kinds of folks I see as sort of the radio towers broadcasting love and compassion around the world, and I hope these folks will keep meditating and contemplating with even more energy so the rest of us can benefit from that.

There’s a guy like me, with a family and a job, I find Buddhist practice to be so valuable for me to stay on an even keel, for me to keep my priorities straight, not to get lost in the day to day grind of stress and challenges and money and I got to send somebody a fax in the morning and here’s my grocery list. I think it’s possible to fritter away your whole life, if you lose sight of your priorities, on just every day junk that doesn’t really matter that much. So for me, my Buddhist practice, as my Christian practice, is a way to help center myself back to my core values and what I feel is going to make my existence on Earth worthwhile, which is trying to serve: trying to serve other people, trying to serve my community, in the Buddhist tradition, trying to serve all sentient beings. I find that I’m happier, too, when I’m in this mindset. When I remember my own Buddha nature and my own inner Christ.

So, as far as engagement, I think it’s possible to hold on to the teachings of Jesus, who was able to walk through the marketplace, and Buddha, who was able to spend time with lay people in all sorts of circumstances. To traditions of Buddhist practitioners, many who have been strong lay people. I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with the Vimalakirti sutra, where a Buddhist businessman is questioned on some points of religion, and he’s able to give very good answers that really cut through misperceptions. Or the figure of Marpa in the Tibetan traditions–Marpa was a great Buddhist teacher in the Karma kagyu tradition, and Marpa was a family man who had a farm and because he was successful, he had the financial resources it took to go to India and study with great sages and bring back the teachings of this Buddhist lineage from Tibet.

So there’s a strong tradition of Buddhist lay people as there is of Buddhist asceticism or monasticism. That inspires me; I’m inspired by both. The monastics inspire me to go home and meditate harder and the lay people inspire me to approach my every day life as a practice. So when I’m writing an email, or when I’m holding a business meeting, or when I’m doing something in government on the campaign trail or attending a City Council meeting, to remember the Buddhist precepts, to remember to always try to bring wisdom and compassion into a situation and to not get lost in some very easy traps of ego or anger or resentment, how to see all the people involved in what may be a controversy or contentious situation as people with Buddha nature, people who have Jesus Christ inside them, and to deal with people in good faith.

Vince: That’s beautiful. As you’re speaking about it, it really reminds me of some of the teachings from Thomas Merton, and they’re all over the Christian tradition about this relationship between contemplation and action. Sounds like you’re describing that perfectly from both the Christian and Buddhist perspectives.

Erik: Yeah, I really resonate with Thomas Merton.

Vince: Nice, well switching gears a little, I wanted to… because you’re kind of in a unique position, on the one hand you’re running for political office, you have a really strong familiarity with religion and politics and you also wrote a book a few years ago entitled Buddha’s not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. The book is on a long running controversy about there being two Karmapas, this position that’s similar to the Dali Lama via reincarnation. It’s a very important position in the Karma Kagyu Tradition and you wrote about this controversy and exploring it. I was wondering, given your unique background in American politics, how much of the controversy that’s going on in the Tibetan culture with these two different Karmapas has to do with political structures in Tibet, or not in Tibet but with the Tibetan people?

Erik: Yeah, this is a really interesting question for me and I’ll try and boil it down as interestingly as I can. My book is filled with lots of Tibetan names, lots of stuff in Tibetan history. Basically I think the whole problem, it’s such an unfortunate controversy over the successor to the 16th Karmapa, I’m sure as your listeners know generally speaking high Lamas in Tibet are replaced through a system of reincarnations, so you have to have a reliable way of deciding which one of two or more boys or girls is the reincarnation of the spiritual master who just died. And there’s been disagreements about this system in Tibet ever since it arose in the Middle Ages.

So it’s nothing new for those disagreements to come up, but what’s new is that it’s happened to the Tibetans unfortunately while they’re in exile outside of their own country. And so many political factors play into it that wouldn’t have play into it before in old Tibet. Of course now you have the Chinese communist government involved, you have the Indian government involved, and then you have the Dalai Lama’s government in exile which is a government, and then the Dalai Lama is also a spiritual leader. And then you have the Karmapa’s own sect, which was never under the Dalai Lama in old Tibet; it was like the Pope and the Archibishop of Canterbury. The Pope doesn’t choose the Archibishop of Canterbury. And even if the Pope was exiled from Rome and the Archbishop was exiled in Canterbury, the Pope still wouldn’t choose the Archbishop of Canterbury. And so that’s the position of the Lamas who support one of the Karmapa candidates, the position of the other Lamas is that “well the Dalai Lama is the head of the all tibetans in exile and he has a right to say who their religious leader should be.”

So it’s very confusing for Westerners to look at this from the outside and I guess when I first learned about it I was studying with Tibetan Lamas at the time, it really turned me off. I always thought of Tibetan Lamas as pretty cuddly. You just want to give them a big hug; they’re always smiling, laughing and telling jokes, and when they’re not doing that they’re meditiating or chanting and wishing good things for all beings. And so when I heard they were doing things like taking each other to court over which Lama has the right to possess a monastery in Northern India, it really bugged me.

I have to be honest, I was about to throw the Buddhist baby out with the Tibetan political bathwater. But what stopped me from doing that is my Lama telling me “well you know what, if this bothers you, why don’t you investigate it, look into it for yourself and I’ll give you access to court documents and historical documents and Monasteries and Lamas and eyewitnesses on both sides and you just do your investigation and whatever you come up with, that’s fine with me. See for yourself what you think.” And so I did that. And I think its really what strengthened my interest in Buddhism.

I was very tempted to say “Wow, these Tibetan Lamas have problems just like everybody else, just like Christian leaders or Muslim leaders or political leaders of countries, there’s corruption and there’s scandals’ and the temptation is to say “well the religion itself must have something wrong,” but what I came to after doing this investigation was, I hope, a more mature approach not only to Buddhism, but to all religions and really any philosophy.

Just because humans are fallible, and institutions are created by humans and so they’re fallible, doesn’t mean that the philosophy or the religion behind them is wrong. Just because of scandals in the Catholic Church or with Protestant ministers, doesn’t mean that Christianity is wrong. And just because Tibetan Lamas disagree over a Karmapa candidate, and do some pretty nasty things in the process like raiding each other’s monasteries and beating each other up over the head. It doesn’t mean that Tibetan Buddhism is wrong, or not a valid path.

I think what it does mean is that just because people are interested in Buddhism, that doesn’t give them an excuse to put their common sense aside any more than if they were Christian or Secular Humanists or just people judging folks in government. You know, we all have a responsibility to use our own judgment and to try to separate the honest leaders from those who are misguided. We all have a responsibility, whether we are religious or not, to look at religious leaders and see which of those are trustworthy and which of those we don’t want to follow.

And in Buddhism I actually think we have more of a responsibility because the Buddha, he famously said, “Don’t take my word for it. Be like a goldsmith: you pound the gold, you taste the gold, you tear the gold, you melt the gold. And you really have to see for yourself if it’s still gold.” And so the Buddha told us, don’t accept Buddhism on faith, test it for yourself, see if it works for you. See if it’s the real deal. And I think sometimes there is a tendency among people who follow Asian Buddhist teachers to get a little bit seduced and to say, “Wow, this person is so mystical and so accomplished. I’m just going to believe everything they say.”

I think that’s a trap. I think that we, as Americans, are particularly vulnerable to that trap because these folks are new to us, and we may not put them to the same standards that we’re used to putting on our own priests and ministers. And so what I found with my life is that it helped me to judge with more distinction and to apply the same common sense standards that I would apply Americans politicians or American religious leaders to Asian religious leaders. And I hope that it’s strengthened my faith. I feel like it has, and at the same time it strengthened my common sense. So that’s why I wrote the book.

Some folks are going to disagree with the conclusions in my book. I came to the conclusion that was a little bit different than the stuff that has been written about this controversy, but I don’t ask folks to agree with me. All I ask is that they look at my evidence and they look at my analysis and that they judge for themselves. I tried to include lots of original source documents, stuff from court cases, stuff from historical documents, stuff all translated into English by reliable sources, so that people can really judge for themselves. And really what I hoped to do with this book is to really put aside this really, as I said before, unfortunate controversy and help people move on to judge for themselves about the situation and then go back to their meditation practice because, for me, that’s really the heart of Buddhism.


Erik Curren