A first interview with Erik Curren, calling for religious freedom for elected officials

by Emily Breder, Examiner.com, July 28, 2009

I was surprised yesterday by an email from Erik Curren's campaign manager. My recent article on him had caught his attention, and I was offered an interview. We talked this afternoon about the melding of two faiths, which is no mystery to me but which is definitely of interest to my readers.

<< Erik Curren, candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates

The conversation then wound to the trend of hiding religious faith or atheism to get ahead in politics. I hope that the following conversation can clear up any misunderstanding that may exist over this growing phenomenon, and answer some of the questions you may have on his candidacy.

Breder:  In Buddhism, there is a commonly held belief that an involved, worldly career like politics doesn’t support a good meditation practice. And that begs the question- did your interest in Buddhism precede your career in politics?

Curren:  Well, it definitely preceded my career. I’ve never had… I’ve never run for any political office before. This is the first time… I’m trying to be a citizen legislator. Of course, I’ve been interested in politics since I was a kid, and I did participate in political campaigns throughout my life. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a little more than a decade, and you’re right, it is challenging to meditate and have an active spiritual practice, whether Buddhist or Christian, when you’re in a political campaign. And I think it’s the same as for a lot of people, that busy careers and families make it challenging to balance worldly concerns with a spiritual path and I think that’s a practice that many Americans have to work with today.

Breder:  Do you follow a particular teacher in Buddhism?

Curren:  Yes, I have studied in Zen centers. I’ve been to Theravadan centers as well, and right now I do mostly meditation in the Tibetan tradition.

Breder:  I’m a little bit familiar with Tibetan. I’m more of a Zen Buddhist myself, most of the time. So, in Buddhism it states that you must never tell a lie or even a half-truth. Politicians are notoriously savvy, which does not necessarily indicate honesty. Do you find that the slick image necessary to maintain in politics isn’t conducive to Buddhist practice?

Curren:  Well, I think that in politics, as in many areas of life, there are always challenges to standing up for high moral and ethical ideals, and I actually think that Buddhist ethics, like Christian ethics or ethics from many other faiths can be something that… that really helps you in politics, to certain people with honesty and integrity.

Breder:  It definitely would be a new kind of politics from what we’ve been experiencing the last fifty years or so. Well… it’s also true that we can’t be extricated from our experiences. It’s those… it’s our experiences which gives us our set of personal ethics, and… one reader described you as an “unknown quantity”. They need a yardstick by which to measure your probable reactions, and… actions and re-actions. Can you describe how Buddhism has shaped your ethical values?

Curren:  Sure! I follow the Bodhisattva ideal. I believe that the life that’s worth living is a life of service to the community, and that’s really what motivated me to run for political office. I have been trying to serve the community in various ways, I volunteer with different Boards and… service organizations and I felt like I could be more effective if I stepped up to the plate… to work on a state-wide level. 

Breder:  A reader also asked whether Buddhism conflicts or expands your Christian faith, in regards to the existence of a Creator/God.

Curren:  You know, there’s a lot of terminology I think that people can get caught up on, and particularly religious faiths, and I think if you speak to some wise religious teachers from different traditions, what I’ve heard them say… people like Thich Nhat Hanh… or even the Pope… that various religious traditions are not all that different in concept. And so, for example, when you talk about… Creator/God in Christianity… in Buddhism, of course, you have the... you may have God, depending on your tradition, but that’s not really what Christians are talking about when they talk about God. I think when Christians talk about God, at least in my humble opinion, they’re talking about something that’s like Ultimate Truth and Ultimate Goodness, and to me that sounds an awful lot like Buddha Nature, and like Ultimate Reality. So, I think that if we can get over the differences in the terminology and some of the cultural things that are not really central to these faiths, we can get to the heart of the faiths, which do have an awful lot of things in common.

Breder:  More than half of… the practicing Buddhists in the United States are members of (other faiths) like you mentioned. Some meditation centers have reported more than half of their retreat participants as being Jewish. This growing phenomenon has been largely unnoticed by the majority of the population ...because of the traditionally quiet nature of Buddhists. Can you describe for your Christian constituency how you can practice Christian beliefs and be a Buddhist at the same time, in simple terms?

Curren:  Sure! So I know in many Christian churches there are Catholic priests or Protestant ministers who teach their parishioners the meditation… simple meditation practice, and the most simple and profound meditation practice, for me, has just been quietly sitting and counting the breath. This is a practice that will… help you come down from your day, help you… center yourself in a place of peace and contemplation, and help you in whatever your faith to look at things that are really important to you… to get back to your core values and not get carried away by the tide of worldly events. It’s really something that helps to give me strength, helps me open my heart to others, and helps me feel better about the world and about existence and feel more optimistic. So, this is a… a practice that I’ve seen many Christians take up with great benefit and in fact, people of all faiths and even of no faith… from corporate boardrooms to hospitals, meditation practice has been… very popular… it’s been growing in popularity, and that to me is very encouraging for this country.

Breder:  You mentioned… cultural differences. Recently, a rift has grown between Eastern and Western Buddhism on the issue of homosexuality. This difference is cultural rather than doctrinal, since the only reference to sexuality by the Buddha was that both partners must be willing and considerate and “not under the protection” of another, as in underage or married. What is your stance on homosexuality?

Curren:  Well, I believe that… God created all people… in his image, and I believe that the Buddha invited all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment… just as he had achieved. And so I think that in both Christianity and in Buddhism all creation is valued, and… no religion should ever be used as an excuse for discrimination.

Breder:  I found almost a dozen Buddhist centers near Highland County while researching this story, including one of Tibetan lineage. Do you attend any of them regularly or for retreats?

Curren:  No… I live in Augusta County, I live in a city called Staunton. Highland County is next door, and it is part of my district. I occasionally attend the Bodhi Path Center which is just south of Lexington, and in fact I did complete a long retreat there some years ago. But on a regular basis I go to an Episcopal Church and sometimes Methodist church, one nearby. My Buddhist practice, I should tell you, is primarily at home. I do… daily sitting or walking meditation.

Breder:  I see, so not much Dharma talk (or) study?

Curren:  No, not much, and I miss it. I would like to have the opportunity for more community… for the Dharma community but with a busy work schedule and political campaign, it’s difficult to travel.

Breder:  I understand, and it’s also… it’s also difficult living in a more isolated area. I used to live in Southern Maryland for many years, and there was not much going on down there either. Did you grow up in Virginia?

Curren:  I grew up in Chicago, I went to college in Virginia and I fell in love with the Shenandoah Valley and I always told myself that I would try to come back. So I was really pleased when I had the opportunity to do so and… now I’m very glad to be living in a town of 22,000 with a very beautiful historic Victorian district downtown, and a lot of arts and culture and… sort of a sense of community, of neighborliness that you don’t find in a big city.

Breder:  Yes, Shenandoah Valley is definitely very beautiful. I spent many summers there as a kid. Your book on the Tibetan lineage is a matter of great interest to my readers. Did you… can you tell my readers a little bit about the book and why you decided to write it?

Curren:  Sure. The book is about the controversy over the reincarnation of the Karmapa Lama, who is one of the leading Lamas in the… Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in the so-called Karma Kagyu lineage. And… it’s a very sad, unfortunate episode that with the death of the 16th Karmapa there came to be a succession dispute between his followers. There were two candidates for the succession for the Karmapa. One of the candidates was quite well-known, and ironically he was endorsed by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. The other candidate is less well-known, I think he is better known in Europe and in Asia than he is in the United States. My book looked at the controversy and frankly took a little bit different point of view than most of the stuff that’s been written about it. I think that some people don’t agree with the conclusions that I came to in my book. I tried to… I tried to write it fairly. My intention was to get to the truth of the matter and to, by backing up all my conclusions with evidence that everybody can check themselves. I hoped to allow Dharma practitioners and others who were interested in this issue to come to their own conclusions about this really… very unfortunate episode. And hopefully, to help some healing to begin so that folks in Tibetan Buddhism and elsewhere can… move forward and focus on the Dharma and not get so… so caught up in religious politics.

Breder:  Can you… state your stance on reincarnation and rebirth? … It’s confusing to people who are not familiar with the Buddhist tenets.

Curren:  Of course, I’m not a … I’m not a Buddhist teacher, or even a scholar, I’m just an ordinary practitioner of Buddhist meditation. But my own personal belief is that I do accept the doctrine of reincarnation, I think that our life-stream does go through different forms in existence, and… I think that there are also some Christians who support reincarnation also. It is an unusual belief I think for some Americans who aren’t familiar with it, but I think it’s… you might even look at it metaphorically. That throughout the course of your life you may go through different stages that almost seem like you’re living different lives. And, of course some Christians have the concept of being born again, which I think… carries into the same idea that you can have a radical transformation in your life that in some ways makes you a different being. And I think that the doctrine of reincarnation, even if you don’t take it literally, can be very provocative and instructive as a metaphor to help you see your life as not sort of frozen and rigid and predetermined, but as free and open and… something that you can change and you can take control of, if you decide to do so. For me, it’s a very optimistic and encouraging way to look at life.

Breder:  I read your… article on Jefferson and the(re being) “no religious test” for office. Was Jefferson a significant influence in your life?

Curren:  Yes, Jefferson has been. He… was a great Renaissance man in so many ways. I don’t think he was perfect. Some people blame him, for example, for starting the two-party system, which everyone knows has its drawbacks. I really wish that Republicans and Democrats could work together more effectively to move the United States forward, and that’s true in the state of Virginia as well. And if I’m elected, I intend to be a very bi-partisan legislator. As far as Jefferson goes, his Statute of Religious Freedom is one of the founding documents of the Commonwealth of Virginia and for the United States. That Jefferson made this such an important, central concept to who we are as Americans and those of us in the Commonwealth of Virginia, who we are as Virginians; to me it’s a priceless legacy. There are many parts of the world today where people are persecuted for their religious beliefs, where people are excluded while running for public office from the free practice of their religious faith. This sort of repression to me seems like one of the most cruel and unusual punishments that you can inflict on a human being, to deprive them or attempt to intimidate them out of following your heart towards the highest goal of salvation or enlightenment or universal love or whatever it is that their faith speaks to them. And to me this is... this should be one of the top issues in world politics. How can we take this ideal of Jefferson’s freedom of religion and bring this idea to every single living being on this planet, so that each one can follow the path that his or her heart begs them to follow.

Breder:  There seems to be… an environment in the United States now where, if you’re not a Christian candidate you don’t have much of a chance of being elected at all. Do you see… possibly, as some of us do, your candidacy as being… a foot in the door for other faiths and perhaps even one day Atheists, who are a growing cross-section of the population, to be represented in our government?

Curren:  You know, I think people of different faiths have been represented in the government; it’s just that they haven’t made that much of a big deal about it. Like Jefferson, we all may call him a Deist… I think it’s difficult for people to understand the approach to religion of the Founding Fathers, all of whom were Christian “on paper”, but what they practiced or what they believed I think is different than what a lot of people would consider to be religious today. So, I think that we probably have more religious diversity in our history than we know.
As far as electability, this is a very interesting concept when it comes to religion and Buddhism in particular. Buddhism teaches us that the mind influences reality in a very profound way and that you can change reality by changing the mind. And so, if you say that someone is un-electable because of their religious faith or for any other reason- the car they drive, the color of their hair- in essence, you are pushing that reality. If you say that this is a tolerant country of open-minded people who like to think for themselves, then you are encouraging another kind of reality.

And so that’s the… the reality that I’m encouraging in my campaign, and I’ve seen evidence for that in talking to thousands of voters in my district. I think… some so-called experts often sell people of this area short. They attribute prejudice and intolerance to people that I don’t see is there. In fact, our area has a 200-year history of religious tolerance, of welcoming people of different faiths, people who were not welcome elsewhere; from Brethren and Mennonites, to Catholics and Jews- who have a synagogue in our town that’s more than a century old. And today, we continue to welcome people of different faiths.

So I tend not to take too seriously folks who see only the worst in people, and I tend to be inspired by people who look coldly at the reality of the situation and see, in fact, it’s not Pollyannish to find that people are open-minded and tolerant; it’s more realistic. People, I think, are better than so-called experts often give them credit for. And I’ve seen that on my campaign, and I believe I can win because people are going… people here especially don’t want to be told what to think. They like to make up their own minds and they’re… they’re independent thinkers.

Breder:  Well… Northern Virginia is very close to Washington (D.C.). Do you have any higher goals for your political career, or are you just going to stick with... local politics?

Curren:  You know, since I’ve never run for any office before and I’ve never served in any elected office, I’d like to see what it’s like. It’s been very educational so far. It’s like going to grad school, and I’ve met so many wonderful people who inspire me every day to reach deeper into myself, for which my Buddhist and Christian faiths prepare me. And I’d like to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, I’d like to represent this area and I’d like to help bring jobs and strong schools and… an improved quality of life to people here. And then, I guess we’ll see after that!

Breder:  Thank you for giving me your time and allowing me to ask you all these questions… Do you have any final comments?

Curren:  Yeah, it’s been great talking to you, Emily.

Breder:  Thank you!

Curren:  If I have any other comments it’s just… I would call on all people of faith, whether Buddhist or otherwise, to stand up for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, wherever they are. Whether it’s in the United States, where sometimes people are sold short or where there’s such a pressure to hide your faith. To other countries, where there may be… stronger consequences for practicing your faith. I would ask all people of good faith, even people who are not believers, to stand up for religious freedom or the freedom not to have any religion. This is an issue for everyone today. And for us to have the kind of world we want for our kids and our grandkids, a world where we can live with each other, the first thing we need to do is not just respect other people’s faith, but value it and encourage it.

Emily Breder is a National Examiner. You can see Emily's articles on Emily's Home Page (http://www.examiner.com/x-16501-Buddhism-Examiner)

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