Monday, September 28, 2009

Zen and Democracy

The practice of Zen and the practice of democracy come together around certain points.

For one thing, they both deal with the individual's confrontation with intimacy. The meaning of Zen practice to the individual is waking up from the illusion of a particular self, and realizing the wholeness of life. Drop the idea of self and larger self appears; then you drop that, too. It is not, however, an experience or an idea -- it is not anything this paragraph can put into words, which is why words about Zen are always stupid and I always feel embarrassed writing about Zen experience on this blog.

Awakening is the best impetus for social action.

The practice of democracy requires feeling intimate with one's community, and taking personal responsibility for it. Starting small is good: your neighborhood, your workplace, maybe your union local. Expand outward from there to larger communities -- your church, your city -- eventually to one's country and outward to our entire world. Start small, though. Start with your own neighbors -- do you ever talk to them? Have you ever asked your neighbor to turn down his stereo? Have you ever exchanged food or information about goings on in the neighborhood? For some, that all comes naturally; for others, it is unthinkable. Some us write letters to politicians in Washington but don't even know the name of the woman in the apartment next door.

Zen and democracy can be sticky.

Zen, like any spiritual practice, can become a costume, an identity, something to reinforce egotistical pride and divide us from our intrinsic unity with all of life.

Democracy can be a catastrophe of human conflict, attachment to opinions and ideologies, and too much democratic argument can bog down government by preventing timely action. One can fall into a hungry ghost realm of angry activism, or frustrated apathy. This, too, divides us from our intrinsic unity with all of life.

With both, it becomes necessary to return to basics. Sit, breathe, leave thoughts alone. After sitting, do some work without going back into thinking. Then, maybe try reading -- but keeping don't-know mind even while reading. Return frequently to these tiny steps with formal practice, so you stop believing there is any barrier between "practice" and "life."

It is possible, then, to treat democracy like work period at a Zen Center. After awakening, clean the toilet. Scrub scrub scrub: work period and Zen are the same. Treat democracy the same way. Read a story or research a topic, for the purpose of making an intelligent choice. Voting time, go and vote, then walk away. Go to a union meeting, if you belong to one, and practice mindful breathing and deep listening. If you have time and your karma inclines you to be interested, go to a town hall, spend a day in court, or a political demonstration, and stick with the mindful breathing and deep listening. If you are called upon to speak at any of these events, speak truthfully in the manner of a bodhisattva, as best as you are able.

With a little practice and some useful technique, mindful citizenship and Zen are the same.

And if you will forgive my opinion -- I think we could really use a lot more mindful citizenship.

If these words help in any way to bring these two concerns together, it will have been worth the effort. Thank you for reading.


sapi3n said...

i like the way Zen Master Seung Sahn put it in the short video I just uploaded here:

he said - put it down - I, my, me mind - very easy... take away - I, my, me mind very difficult.

from my own experience with this, the formal aspect is very important, but more so the rapture - where the tendency to become enmeshed is removed.

Nathan said...

Good post. Yes, we definitely need more mindful citizenship. Informed, mindful citizenship.

Derek (formerly 'me') said...

Nice! I find it important (but HARD) to avoid the loop of thinking "should I?" which can go on and on and never yield a damn thing.