Saturday, December 11, 2010

We Are Involved


In our school's bodhisattva precepts ceremony (where a layperson takes 64 precepts and becomes a "Bodhisattva Teacher"), there was always a reliable laugh line when the presiding teacher read out the precept against becoming "a national politician."

If there is any occupation more demeaned than that of a performer, it is the occupation of politician. In American Zen, even among those who follow the news and connect politics to their own lives, an interest in politics is considered, to some degree, un-dharmic. Is "un-dharmic" a phrase? What I mean is, it isn't "spiritual" or "Zen" to be interested in that stuff.

Politics are associated with words, opinions, ideology, and thus with ego-identification. They also associated with an interest in power. To seek political office is held as inherently suspect and, among many Zen practitioners, unseemly for someone on the path to awakening or whatever it is we are doing. To follow politics is seen as falling into the snare of worldly things; it is not usually seen as a way of watching where things are going in the larger picture.

This is the old argument between the sacred and the profane. Yet "sacred" and "profane" are created by thinking. Modern life is both, or neither if you prefer. Here is an analogy. If you run a Zen Center, you have to get your hands dirty in the worldly business of managing an organization, funding it, planning logistics, and handling the personalities of the human beings involved in the place. In other words, you need to be fully human with your feet on the ground. Is this inconsistent with Zen teaching? I've known people who think that if you sit and chant a lot, these things take care of themselves; and what I've observed is that these people rely on other people -- worker bees -- to make it happen. As a young Zen student, I was often a worker bee myself, while the mystics concluded that faith had done it.

When the entire world is your Zen Center, it is sensible to expand the metaphor to civic matters. I am co-abbot of my household. The state of my city interpenetrates my family's home, my son's education and access to important services, the opportunities he will have at successive stages of his life, and the conditions of my wife's life and my own as we age. The state of the nation interpenetrates my city and thus my home. To this, add compassion for my neighbors and the feeling that "they" and "I" are part of a whole. Their welfare is of interest to me. Some of my fellow human beings are thieves, and I mourn for them; others of my fellow human beings are victims of those thieves, and likewise for them I feel kinship.

Turning my back on them and learning to ignore these matters so I can wear nice dharma clothes and sit in beautiful Zen Centers is missing a very important point. We are involved. Not guilty, but involved. We learn how to let go of opinions so that we can see clearly and act in our world, so that we can show up for our own lives in marriage, parenthood, sickness, death. Even full-time Buddhist monks are involved in the whole. Certainly we householders are. We are responsible for the whole clamorous mess, svaha. Zen hermits go to the mountaintop and come back to the village square, and then repeat.

It is from this perspective I will be writing an appreciation of someone who is that most hated of professionals -- more despised than actors, more loathed than lawyers, more feared than the dentist -- a career politician (hissss!!!!) who has been a mayor, a Congressman, and is now a United States Senator.

If there is an Eightfold Path for the politician, I think this man may well exemplify it. In this appreciation, I will mention a second United States Senator who is himself a former Zen student and appears, to me, to be using his position to help his country and all beings.

It is not a call for Zen practitioners to imitate these men or to get involved in competitive politics, but a call to open up our minds about service. A bodhisattva can wear a suit and a corporate haircut, and as rare as it might be, there can be expedient means in conducting public business in a true spirit of service.

This concludes the introduction. Watch this space for the main post.

1 comment:

Petteri Sulonen said...

Do you know the English comedy series, Yes Minister? There's an episode there called The Whisky Priest, which I think is scarily thoughtful and insightful about what it means to be a politician.