Zen in politics. Be able to say that nothing human is alien to us. Barry Magid July 23rd 2016

For a thousand years Zen developed in the context of a culture that treated politics like the weather. Something you couldn't really influence. In America however, there is this sense that Zen will be allied to progressive and utopian if not revolutionary thinking. What is the role of a Zen community in politics today?

Given everyone's preoccupation with politics these days, I thought I'd try to say something about Zen and politics, but I'd like to begin by putting it in a broader historical context that considers the relationship of philosophy and religion in general to politics. In different ways those have evolved either together or at odds.

For the Greeks, philosophy and politics were intricately related, and Plato and Aristotle had two very different ways of approaching politics, but each considered it a proper area for philosophers to weigh in on. Aristotle, the empiricist, had a project of collecting all the known constitutions of all various different countries and city-states to try to do a comparative study of all the ways that people organize themselves socially. He thought man was intrinsically a social or political animal and that this merited a certain kind of scientific study to see the ways that we have available to us -- what we have done, how we have adapted, socially and politically -- parallel to the ways animals do that in their environment.

His concern was not so much on imagining an ideal society, but looking at how individuals developed their virtues of justice, courage, moderation, and discernment within a society. He was interested in how, by education and political participation, those characteristics are developed in an individual and how those individuals thus armed are able to make their own choices about how things should be organized. This is a kind of bottom-up approach focusing much more on individual character.

Plato, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. He was very interested in trying to imagine an ideal organization for society and he was not at all shy about offering his services to any local tyrant who would like his help in implementing it. The Republic is a description of that kind of ideal society that is governed by a philosopher elite, the idea being that society can best be run by the people with the greatest insight and wisdom, and they’ll know how things should be done. His attempts to enlist someone to put this into practice didn't work out, not surprisingly, but the enterprise itself is a kind of temptation that people have indulged in ever since, trying to imagine the ideal way of organizing society, and you can see versions of that in Kant and Hegel, Marx, Bentham, and so forth and so on.

The idea that we should be governed or society be organized by a philosophical elite is one that doesn't have much general appeal, because we are too aware of the dangers of tyranny or autocracy. It's very interesting to me, though, that one place this often continues to be played out is in religious communities and monasteries, where there really is this kind of explicit idea that things will be organized in the best possible way through the wisdom of an enlightened teacher, who knows how to put together a community.

In America this has been a particularly seductive idea, combining religious enthusiasm and American utopianism, where we imagine that the Zen community represents some kind of ideal blend of the cultivation of wisdom and a communal, mutually supportive life. Sometimes this is envisioned as a kind of island in the middle of a corrupted world, and sometimes it is meant to be a model for the world at large, with the Zen community going out and running different kinds of Buddhist inspired practices. But in a certain sense, I think it bares a lot of resemblance to the old ideal of Plato, that the enlightened philosopher teacher will know how to organize things in the best possible way.

The Greeks had lots of debates in the Classical period about what constitutes the best kind of government, whether it’s some kind of aristocracy, a democracy, or the great alternative always debated there: Sparta, which was a communally-organized military government. Many people in Athens had a great fascination and admiration for the efficiency of Sparta, and it was a constant challenge to the idea of democracy.

Those debates went back and forth with all sorts of variations until the Romans came in and took over everything, and then it is interesting how philosophy was transformed and adapted to the reality of the Roman Empire. Once the empire was established, nobody had any more discussions about what the ideal form of government was; that was simply off the table. In one sense it would get you executed, but in another it seemed such a remote possibility that anything anybody could do to alter the empire was a waste of time.

So philosophy turned inward, and you have the great Hellenistic philosophies of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism arising with regard to how individuals need to handle themselves in a world that's basically beyond their control. The Stoics in particular developed a philosophy that wanted to make a clean dividing line between what was under their control and what was out of their control, and most of the outside world, and especially politics, was essentially outside their control, and what they could do was cultivate a kind of inner peace, an inner mastery. This has a lot to recommend it, and it’s a pretty good beginning therapeutic idea: Pay attention to your own reactivity, your own self-regulation, don't try to control the uncontrollable. However, from a contemporary point of view, Stoicism flounders on the concept of the unconscious. We now have a sense that the inner is no more under our control than the outer, and that we have to come to terms with parts of ourselves that we don't understand or can't control just the same way as the outer world is.

What makes this relevant to Zen is that Zen developed in China under conditions that were very similar to the development of Stoicism under the Roman Empire. Chinese Zen was developed in a world of emperors and empires where discussions of ideal societies were simply out of the question. The emperor's place in the world was part of the natural order of things. This was not to be questioned. You could have good or bad emperors, and philosophers like Confucius might want to instruct emperors on the way their role in society should be analogous to the role of the father in the family and so on. But by and large, Zen developed for well over a thousand years in a culture that treated politics a lot like the weather. It's simply something you adapted to, not something you presumed to try to influence in any way at all.

When we get to America, in Buddhism, there is suddenly a sense that Zen is going to be aligned with a progressive and utopian revolutionary thinking. American Zen in my generation was very much a counter-cultural utopian kind of practice, where we were going to create a radical alternative to the kind of bourgeois capitalism of the America in the 50s and 60s. At the same time, Zen developed a kind of therapeutic dimension, where it was seen as a vehicle for the radical transformation of character. In that sense, it was aligned with therapeutic philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism: How do we reorganize our values in a way that allows us to function at cross currents to the dominant, materialistic values of mainstream society?

All of which brings me back around to consider what the goal of a Zen community is in a larger political community in the present day. I think that what has evolved is complex and faces in two very different directions. For me, I think that the primary function of Zen practice is religious and therapeutic, and in that sense, it's the examination and transformation of character through a particular kind of discipline. What we do in that discipline is essentially look in the mirror and see all the different faces that show up there, and I think that what we have to do is come to terms with the great confusing, conflicting plurality of selves that emerge when we sit on the cushion. And while we all approach Zen practice initially with a single ideal self, one which is calm, well-composed, compassionate and so forth, a single self that we think we're going to cultivate at the expense of all those other nasty, crazy, unhappy selves that are floating around inside our head, the actual work of practice is to be able to work through our identification with all aspects of ourselves.

It doesn't stop with what's going on inside. Zen as a religious practice says we can't set up a clear boundary between inside and outside. It's one of the things the Stoics wanted to do. Zen, particularly, contradicts that. It says there is no such boundary, and that who I am is not separate from the world of which I'm a part and which conditions me, creates me and vice versa. So part of our practice is a way of experiencing and tolerating our interconnectedness. One of the best expressions of that is the poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, "Please Call Me By My True Names," in which with one thing after another, he says: I am both the victim and the victimizer. I am everything. I am all sides of humanity. It's not simply that I am the good and the compassionate; I am also the angry, hurtful, dangerous one, and I have to truly experience my non-separation with all of life.

The difficult lesson that that offers us, in these current times, is that we would have to say that one of our true names is Donald Trump, and that our religious practice is simply designed to do the opposite of what he's doing, which is drawing strict boundaries between us and them. He wants to literally build walls between the good guys and the bad guys, but if our religious practice says that's the wrong way to proceed, that what we believe is non-separation, then we have to include him, too. We can't create our own ethical walls and put him on the outside of it. We have to figure out how to say that nothing that is human is alien to us. We have to be able to acknowledge our inner Trump, and see our own greed, anger, envy, narcissism, pride -- all these things. This is what makes us a religious and therapeutic practice, to acknowledge all aspects of ourselves, all aspects of non-separation that basically we want no part of.

However, I think that we have also come to a stage in our social engagement where Buddhism does not see itself primarily as creating an ideal community in isolation on a mountaintop some place. The ideal of the Chinese monastery or Dogen, to separate yourself from the world so you can practice in a purer way, is by-and-large not something that we give a lot of credence to anymore, and particularly in things like lay practice where we try to think all the time about our engagement with the world and the interaction of our practice with our daily lives. And so we have a kind of socially-engaged Buddhism that I think is a new and very appropriate form of practice, and that kind of practice can certainly be out in the world making a case against the kind of separations that a Trump calls for.

We offer a different kind of vision of the world. I think it's appropriate in some way that Buddhist communities publicly take that stance. Within the Zendo, anybody really should be able to come in here. This shouldn't solely be a place for liberal democrats. This shouldn't solely be a place where we all feel holier than thou, or righteous in our specialness and insight. It ought to be a place where we try to acknowledge our common humanity and the parts of ourselves that are not so different from what's out there giving rise to things that scare us. So I think that my take on this question of Zen and politics ends up being not very simple.

I think there is a complicated dialectic between the religious therapeutic practice and being all-inclusive with what's in ourselves and what's in our society, a dialectic between that position and the one that says we need to be engaged in the world. We need to be out there coming down from the hundred-foot pole, coming down from the mountaintop monastery, and figuring out how our vision can be carried out when we engage socially. The main thing I would say is always to be suspicious of anyone who has one right way to do that. It's complicated, and it should stay complicated. When it gets too simple, there's something wrong with it.

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