Zen is Political: So, What is a Person Going to Do About it? Six Suggestions.

Zen is Political: So, What is a Person Going to Do About it? Six Suggestions. September 26, 2018



Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats


Of course Zen is political.

All religions are political. (If you want to hash out whether Zen is religious or spiritual, you might spend a minute here, or, perhaps more importantly, here.)

Now, the etymology of Zen means meditation, and Zen is properly a school of Buddhism that focuses on the disciplines of meditation. But, it not just about the tools of seeking, it is about finding.

The project of Zen is the project of our awakening to the wise heart.

And with that finding there is doing. There is the whole mess of living.

Politics is the work of people in groups. Politics is how we interact, how we deal with each other, and the world.

And, how can we not bring our deepest views, our moral compasses, those axioms of right and wrong to our political engagement?

All this said of course we have to be careful. Very, very careful.

For instance Zen Buddhists have not been particularly good at engaging politics. Throughout its history in China and beyond Zen Buddhists have for the most part carefully tended the authorities. Politics has been mostly going along to get along. There are stories of standing up to authorities, of telling emperors they have earned no merit for their charitable acts, and what not. But, most of these tellings are placed well outside the mess of history and move into the realm of fairytale and koan. And, anyone with any knowledge of Japanese Zen history know the disastrous alliance between the majority of Zen priests of all sects and the imperial government in the run up to and right through to the end of the Second World War.

Today, here, as in much of the world, we live within bourgeois democracies. Yes, there is the mostly not acknowledged reality of a heavily oligarchic element in our democracies. But, there is an amazing amount of power in the hands of people. And, with that here we are.

And, there is something we within the world of Zen practitioners need to note.

Today the near monolithic stance of Zen practitioners here in North America on the left of the American political scene should sound a cautionary note. If everyone believes it, there probably is a problem. I say this in no way claiming to be immune. I am not at the farthest left of our contemporary political spectrum, but I’m well past the center. And, as a person of our American left I am active in our political lives, feeling often I am not so much engaged in politics as within a moral consequence to my spiritual life.

With that two thoughts. First the caution, then a possible way forward.

The caution. We humans are herd animals. We tend to reinforce each other. And, that can lead to unconscious bias that becomes group think. And. We need, all of us, to note there is some solid science suggesting many of our views are programmed at a subconscious level. So. Never has the spiritual axiom “don’t believe what you think” been more important than as we take ourselves to the ballot box.

And with that one possible way forward.

I think we Zen Buddhists might particularly bring to the table as we struggle with direction in the future is our moral/ethical container. This may prove to be of critical importance as we go forward. We might be able to offer a corrective to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, opening a path that can take what is valuable from each, but which holds another view of who and what we are as our north star.

What our contemporary political philosophies lack, in my view, is a realistic anthropology, and, with that, a moral perspective that gives us a genuinely healthful direction. So, as I see it what our modernist, or naturalist, a right term hasn’t yet emerged or at least hasn’t yet gained common currency, so right now I’m going with naturalist Zen Buddhist perspective offers a sense of the human as the result of causes and conditions, precious in the moment, but passing, and always contextualized within the world like a near infinite collection of Russian dolls.

Practically, we humans intuit this and it rises in us as a sense of fairness, of balance, of harmony. The catch is that we also have an inbuilt sense for survival, and it manifests as often as not as an inclination to cheat. So, there we are. One image that can work if you don’t hold it too tightly is half angel, half demon. Another way is we, each of us, and in our collective are a bundle of potentiality.

What I find within this is the axiomatic perspective. 1) We are connected. 2) We have a sense of fairness. 3) We have a need to protect ourselves. 4) There’s no real distinction between our brains and our hearts, bring them together. And use them.

And. We are conscious. I’m sure all animals are in varying ways. But, we humans can communicate that consciousness with each other. And, I believe to the soles of my feet that with this consciousness comes responsibility. We are responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for each other. The image I find hard to ignore is that we are in fact all of us family. And, we are responsible for the family. Each of us.

So, 5) We need to be humble in our engagement, knowing we might be wrong. And, 6) We must act.

As Howard Zinn famously noted, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

While the harsh truth is we see through that glass darkly, influenced by things we are completely unaware of, the power, the magic of presence opens possibilities for us. A full presence opens a path that we can walk, including a way to engage our political lives.

I find this path demands both reflection and engagement. I cannot do in alone. Nor, can anyone else. We are all in this mess together. That is my naturalistic Zen Buddhism in a nutshell.

Then there’s Mr Yeats’ song. After the observation about the good equivocating whilst the bad, well, they’ve got their certainties, and a lot of power comes with that. But. And. Also. This.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats sang out of a somewhat different story than this naturalistic Zen Buddhism. But, maybe in fact its not all that different.

It is after all the story of a baby, of the most ordinary of all things, becoming through attention and love, something quite special. And the question remains. What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem at this hour?

What choices might we open our hearts to?

What actions might we take from that place of knowing ourselves more deeply, and that most amazing of all secrets, that we are each and everyone of us connected?

Who knows?

What I do know, is that with good information or bad, we must pick a direction.

Just how it goes…

"As someone who is not liberal, I would wholeheartedly disagree. :)"

Zen Come West: A Passing Reflection ..."

Enter Edgar Allan Poe
"“...the overwhelming inclination among Western Zen’s current leaders towardthe “left” of contemporary Western politics.”Being "liberal" ..."

Zen Come West: A Passing Reflection ..."
""Always looking for the easier way..." nice."

Zen Come West: A Passing Reflection ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment