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.

Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Nothing is Concealed
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
  • Mike Haitch

    Why not just be a good human? Being a good citizen is dancing to a tune that is not your own. In the UK the governent is trying to argue that paying the tax legally due may be immoral, That the moral thing is to pay as much tax as the government wants but is not legally entitled to. What’s the answer?

    I think you can head for the hills AND change society. If you are not chasing the same things people notice. My body has demanded a time-out fom me. I’ve taken an unpaid sabbatical and gone on a busman’s holiday – trained in new aspects of my job, looked at bringing artistry to it and looked at refinding the love of the craft and the joy of making the world better through it – but without denying myself in the process. It’s sent out an electric message to those around me about many things and has led to lots of interesting dialogue and changes. None of it planned, I just did what body and soul demanded I do for selfish reasons. Everything flowed fom that! I think I’ve contributed more by being selfish than I did by seeking to make a contribution.

    What’s the right drum to march to at this moment ? Isn’t that the heart of Zen? I’m not Dogen or Dosho or Obama, I’m Mike. What does being Mike mean? Babbage meets Van Gough meets Dogen? A noboby? A citizen? A batchelor? A washout? A……?

  • Alan

    I’m for the cabin and for leaving my door open for conversations that matter for those who want to make a go of being in the thick of things for change. Conversations can be the beginnings of change in any culture. So call me chicken but I’m a conversationalist and thinker. And I think we need all types.


  • Austin

    Dear Dosho,

    Exactly the post I needed.

    I think being a good citizen means acting for the benefit of all beings, realizing that is a koan, and still trying like hell any way. Bodhisattva practice is heartbreaking and heartmending all at once. Makes me think of any muscle in our body- harvesting tears it up, resting heals the tears, and we do it again. Samsara might be the same, the more we offer ourselves to the suffering, the more we move towards enlightenment. I think this is Dogen’s practice as enlightenment and I think it’s the only thing we have.

    And I think I’m in the hills, just a little. We strive towards sustainability and I hope the people who come here walk away thinking 1) wow, it’s not so quiet and peaceful, but still special. 2) There is nothing special, and we can cultivate this nothing special where ever we go.

    As for feeding 11 billion, I think it can be done, but it will take radical change. We’re probably the only civilization in the last 600 years to actually shit and piss into clean drinking water (our crystal clear toilets) without a second thought. People talk about monocropping and industrial agriculture like it’s hell fire, and it is pretty hot, but I just can’t believe I am actually not allowed to NOT shit in clean water. This reminds me of the movie Idiocracy, where the people are salting the fields with gatorade. We’re not so far off.

    Big big bow,


  • Dave Laser

    Dosho- Thanks for the update- definitely a book I’ll read. Context, as you point out, is decisive. For me, the future we’re creating is the context for the present. If the future you’re committed to is enlightened society ( say, like, a vow), then you’re a different person standing in line at the grocery store, from the person living into the default, sci-fi future, cynical and resigned. Different words come out of your mouth, different actions from your body. You become a contibution, an offering. That’s my initial read on ‘Good Citizen’: acknowledging the inescapability of our interconnectedness, and that the future is only as bleak as we agree to say it is. And by all means, head for the hills—for a while. This isn’t Dogen’s world anymore.

  • Oreb

    Reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night.

  • Zen Presence

    I find myself pulled both ways myself. A middle path is what I’m trying to achieve. I do not involve my daily life in politics or other such drama, but stay engaged in life. TRY to live and work on my values and share by example.


  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Simple point: This reminded me of the growing importance of ‘self care’ that I learned all about in Social Care training. It’s increasingly seen as a professional competency, and an essential component of best practice.

    Basically, you gotta look after yourself, and avoid burn out: Running around trying to save the world and making an emotional/physical mess of yourself in the process is not in anybody’s interest.

    In saying that, I’m not the ‘save the world’ type, the sort of person with a martyr complex, who may feel guilty about putting their own needs to the fore at times; so it’s not a big problem with a lazy-assed chap like me I think.

    So, yeah, save the world and do your best and all, but do the retreat to the woods or whatever in order to take good care of yourself as part of the task at hand.

    Lots of reading on ‘professional self care’ on the net.

    2 cents more,


  • BuddhaFrog

    With every step, walk the green waters and the blue hills.
    –Zen Sand 8.369