Create Enlightened Society or Head for the Hills?

I’d been practicing Zen for a half-dozen years when my mother asked for a book that explained what it was that I was up too. Apparently, I’d been quite incoherent on that particular point (well, most other points too) and she was concerned.

Thinking that Zen Master Dogen might not resonate, I got her a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step.

Next time I saw her I asked what she thought of it. “That’s the religion I’ve been practicing my whole life,” she said.

And that warmed my little heart.

That was probably in the mid ’80’s and Thich Nhat Hanh had already honed his message.

He’d come by the Minnesota Zen Center in 1982, offering a workshop as an unknown Vietnamese monk and his message – “breathe and smile,” for example – was quite shocking in its tenderness, clarity, and social concern.

Thirty years down the road, here’s Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society. Reading the book I had two conflicting impressions. First, “Damn, Thich Nhat Hanh has stayed on message in an awesomely consistent manner.”

And second, “Damn, he was saying the same stuff in the 80’s.”

Turns out that mindfulness, looking deeply, and ethics just don’t get old.

Now what’s this about “Creating Enlightened Society?”

Context: We’re likely to have ~11 billion humans on this little rock by ~2050. Not many people who know about such things think that we can feed 11 billion. If the world embraced Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision for a society of good people doing the right thing – as in all the great traditions – it sure as hell would be better than the hellish sci-fi vision of greed, anger, and ignorance that is likely to roll out if we don’t.

So I applaud this effort at turning the wheel.

A couple points for conversation.

First, what’s the difference between “good” (as in “Good Citizen”) and “enlightened” (as in “Creating Enlightened Society”)? Are they the same or different?

Second, is your proclivity to head for the hills like Dogen or is it to jump in and work to create a society that has a chance at sustainability?

Personally, I go both ways. And these two ways have been in dialogue for a long time.

Sometimes I still dream of living in a cabin deep in the woods, sitting and listening to the wind in the trees. Sometimes I think I better get off my ass and make a contribution.

Time is running out.

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