Saturday, December 11, 2010

Politicians and Correct Relationship

This will be a little long, but not a filibuster. It's about two politicians who do not practice Zen in a formal sense but who remind me of an important teaching from Zen Master Seung Sahn.
Bernie Sanders is not one to grab the spotlight. He's not photogenic. He has a strong Brooklyn accent. He's a policy guy, not a leading man. News hounds and political junkies know him as a novelty, an independent politician who has served in the House and Senate for twenty years, a record for an independent.

On Friday, December 10, he became an international celebrity for a day. After following him for 20 years, this felt odd.

Vermont sent Bernie Sanders, this carpenter and scholar, to Congress in 1990. He was the first independent elected to Congress in 40 years. It was not long after his election that I took an interest in him. He caucused with Democrats and worked very effectively as a lawmaker, yet maintained his independence from the national party's corporate sponsors and their agenda.

This old kibbutznik made no bones about being a socialist yet he works as a reformer, not a revolutionary. He buried himself in the work and distinguished himself as a hard-working and conscientious legislator, sincerely pushing for incremental steps to benefit people in his own state and the Republic at large.

In 2006, when his friend Jim Jeffords announced his retirement from the United States Senate, Sanders ran for his seat and won. When in Washington, he uses creative means to keep residents involved using various media. At this writing, there are three finalists for an essay contest among his constituents whose entries are posted on his Senate web site. The winner will be chosen by the public.

Last Friday, halfway through his first term in the Senate, he gave a speech that made him an international sensation via the Internet and Twitter. He gave a speech that crashed the Senate's video feed and got people watching C-Span throughout the day. It was, as he warned when he took the floor at 10:25 that morning, a very long speech.

It was not a filibuster, as was reported all day long. The Senate had no vote scheduled, and he did not actually bring the government to a halt. It was, simply, a very long speech.

Senator Sanders, a 69-year old man, held the Senate floor for eight and a half hours. For all of that time, he stood and did not eat. During that time, Senators Brown of Ohio and Landrieu of Louisiana took the microphone, but Senate procedure required Sanders to continue standing while holding the floor. Together, those two senators spoke for about an hour. Sanders himself spoke for seven and a half hours.

Moreover, this was not a speech padded the way rare filibusters have been inflated by songs and readings from the phone book and that sort of nonsense, purely for the purpose of holding things up. This was, in fact, a very long speech on a broad topic, researched and accompanied with visual aids and exhaustive factual detail. Although he became a bit hoarse and tired, he delivered his speech with passion and force right up until he yielded the floor just before 7:00 PM.

From the Congressional Record, I have downloaded the entire text of his speech. Converted to a Microsoft Word file, it runs 127 pages.

His topic, nominally, was a controversial tax package. Sanders strongly opposes it. To explain why and put his objection in context, Sanders took an entire day to talk about our country and its priorities. He had charts ready to make his data easier to understand. In his very long speech he discussed defended the public sector: the benefit of pooling our resources to provide quality education, infrastructure, a social safety net, and a dignified retirement for the elderly. He defended human development as a national priority, defending labor, defending justice in economic policy rather than competitive advantage at all costs. He talked about our labor history, the manufacturing sector we once had, the deteriorating lot of the worker in our country. He talked about the increasing financialization of the American economy, as opposed to an economy based on production. He talked about national debt, its uses and its liabilities. He circled back to the hated tax legislation again and again, attacking it from a new angle with every new chapter of historical context. Eight hours on his feet, with nothing in his stomach but some oatmeal and a cup of coffee, he peered at a near-empty Senate chamber and gave this heartfelt address.

As he continued, word of this speech began going around the Internet. He began "trending" on Twitter, news feeds began writing stories about it, links were shared to the Senate web site and C-Span, and people began tuning in throughout the day, if only to check whether the guy was still talking.

Sanders had to know this. The Republican party uses the threat of a filibuster as part of its daily routine to discourage legislation or stall. Senate leaders do not as a rule call their bluff and make them do it. The last actual filibuster was held by Senator Al D'Amato of New York in 1992. (He read from the phone book among other things.) Sanders knew this very long speech would generate attention, that perhaps curiosity would lead to engagement in the issue, and he made sure to call repeatedly for the public to get involved, to be in touch with their Congressional representatives. He not only circled back to why, in his view, the bill itself was horrible, but gave an extended vision for the country that was deeply rooted in a love for people, community, public service, and justice.

This was not a blowhard ranting for several hours. Agree or disagree with a man's opinion, but this was a rare and commendable speech, an extended, detailed, well-researched speech full of substance and sincere passion. This was a cri de coeur, a lecture on policy, and a detailed proposal for the correct relationship between a government and its citizens.

"Correct relationship" is an important concept in the teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. The entire purpose of Zen practice was to help stay awake for every moment of our waking life, and fulfill our relationship to every person, place, or thing that appears in each moment. Family relationship. Sangha relationship, especially for monks whose only family becomes sangha. Work relationship. Relationship to one's own needs ("when hungry, eat"). Relationship to property, taking responsibility for the stuff in our care. He also included relationship with country. "Correct relationship" becomes an aspect of practicing 24 hours a day. Typing these words, I pause to breathe, read over what is above, and consult the purpose: why am I taking the time to organize these thoughts and share them?

There is an old idea embedded in Zen and other spiritual communities that the way to be more "spiritual" (or something) is to ignore aspects of our lives. This, I think, is a distortion of the teachings and in any case is not psychologically healthy. There are a few mystics living on mountaintops who need not be concerned about anything more than meditation, physical exercise, and what they're going to eat -- but even these hermits require assistance from other people. No human being lives in a vacuum. Besides people, they depend on the state of the earth and the atmosphere.

Few teachers stressed the importance of letting go of opinions and training hard in Zen any harder than Zen Master Seung Sahn. Yet he reminded us of the larger truth of Indra's net, that our lives interpenetrate. We are involved.

He also reminded us that anything can become an attachment, something we fixate on and ignore everything else. We can do that with political activism. We can do that with consumerism and comfort. We can do that with food, sex, sleep. We can do that with asceticism, too: "Don't bother me with that, I'm spiritual." These are all mistakes. They all represent desire.

Public service, however denigrated in our cynical time, is an occupation that can be practiced humbly by a person for the benefit of all sentient being. A lawyer can do that -- and many of them do. A policymaker (whether they hold elected office or not) can do that. A politician, someone professionally connected to the legislative process and all the connections that go with that, can also do that. If they are clear in their heart about why they are in that position, it is quite possible.

It is a little-known fact, and not a secret, that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was once heavily involved with New Haven Zen Center. This would have been in his undergraduate days at Yale, back in the 1970's. He is Christian by religion (Episcopalian, I believe) but, for a time, trained hard in Zen meditation with Zen Master Seung Sahn. He is not involved with any Zen organizations anymore, as far as I know. He went on to a rather impressive career in public service. He became an attorney, served Rhode Island as a U.S. Attorney, then as Rhode Island's Attorney General, and won election to the United States Senate in 2006. However one may differ from his opinions or positions about this or that bill, few question his integrity or what Seung Sahn referred to as "direction." I'm not in touch with this man personally, but I would guess he does not do formal Zen meditation anymore. Yet I look at his career and see him using his knowledge and talent to help our world.

Whatever job we have, whether we are raking tar on a city street or living as a monk in a monastery or managing a classroom or even chairing a government committee, we have the opportunity to wake up in this moment and use that situation to benefit the whole.

In these two posts, I wanted to hold up these two politicians -- Bernie Sanders and, briefly, Sheldon Whitehouse -- as evidence that politicians who have their heads on straight can use their situation to help other people. There is no need to disparage politicians as a class; what we need are politicians who are awake. Politicians who are deeply awake can help this world.


Ji Hyang said...

well done.

Barry said...

Thank you for this very clear post.

Nathan said...

Yes, they do exist - politicians that demonstrate awakeness. Thank you for the reminder.