In the summer of 2006, I officially became a Zen Buddhist and promised to uphold the Buddhist precepts. It seemed to me that the gravest of them was Non-Killing, and that the most violent thing I did was to pay my federal income tax. That summer Israel was dropping American-made bombs on Lebanon, while US soldiers killed Iraqis and Afghans. A portion of each of my paychecks helped cover the costs. So I resolved to stop paying my taxes. I revised my W-4, claiming enough allowances that my withholding dropped to zero. When it came time to file my taxes, I filed normally, reporting to the IRS that I owed thousands of dollars, and I included a letter explaining that my religious principles prevented me from paying my taxes. I gave the money to the New York City People’s Life Fund.
I wonder what impression I made on the IRS clerk who read my letter. How did he or she imagine me, a “Zen Buddhist”? As a robed ascetic in a cave, with an inexplicably high salary?
In the last two years, I’ve tried to prevent the IRS from collecting. I’ve had to change many aspects of my life. I quit my full-time job as a software engineer and became a private contractor, hoping that would hinder them. Freelancing has provided many opportunities to practice the precept of Right Livelihood: I have fun checking into a company’s business a little bit before I take an assignment. Some are downright immoral, like one firm that identifies influential doctors so drug companies can target them with marketing campaigns and “incentives.” Other companies do little harm, but add nothing to the world, which seems wasteful to me — I put most advertising firms in this category. Sometimes my choices are virtuous, sometimes I have to compromise.
Many people have told me that I won’t make a difference, and eventually the IRS will collect everything I owe plus interest. I think this is probably true, but practicing the precepts isn’t about success or failure for me. I’ll try to practice them even though I can’t change the headlines, even though there’s no end to war. It’s frustrating to work so hard without hope of success, but I think acting morally is my only shot at having a fulfilling life.
I regularly attend war tax resistance meetings held by counselors with NWTRCC. The meetings are chaired by Ed Hedemann, who’s battled the IRS for decades. At one meeting a young man who was considering whether to pay his taxes this year asked Ed what legal tactics might protect a war tax resister. He asked what works. “Nothing works,” Ed replied.
I was moved. Several facts became apparent to me simultaneously. First, that Ed had worked year after year toward an ideal that will not be realized in our lifetimes, that probably will never be realized, and that he was committed to trying, regardless of his chances. Second, that there was no turning back for any of us. And finally, that it didn’t matter whether we had any chance of success: ethics don’t depend on feasibility.
I think the greatest danger to me is not that I’ll be punished by the government, but that I’ll forget my intention. It’s easy to get caught up in the game of resistance, finding ways to prevent the IRS from collecting what I owe, and it’s easy to make an enemy of the IRS, the government, George Bush. I can imagine that I’m some kind of hero. But if I allow myself to do that, I’ll undermine my own project. In the name of peace, I’ll have started my own private war.
Instead, I have to keep in mind that the reason I decided not to pay my federal taxes in the first place was because I refuse, as a Buddhist, to use violence to achieve my goals. As soon as I make enemies of those with whom I disagree, as soon as I take pleasure in winning a conflict, I’ve already lost. As Zen Master Seng T’san said, “A hair’s breadth difference, and heaven and earth are set apart.”
From the July/August 2008 issue of More Than a Paycheck. A version of this article first appeared in the Dec ’07/ Jan ’08 Village Zendo Journal, http://villagezendo.org.