Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Polishing the tile, being political

I was thinking about Zen Buddhism and politics following this recent post by the Venerable Warner.  He said:

I also feel like Zen should not be politicized. I really hated it in the early 80s when all the televangelists used their position to push the Reagan agenda. These days I see a lot of Buddhist organizations using their positions to push left-wing politics, which I think is a similar abuse. Because I've said this some people imagine I must be a neo-Nazi. Because in certain circles the view seems to be that anyone who doesn't shout the praises of liberalism from the rooftops at every opportunity has to be a neo-Nazi. But I promise you I'm not. I just don't think Buddhism ought to get mixed up in such matters.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the come-back. "What if the fascists come back in power??? What if your neighbors are being rounded up and sent to re-education camps???" I'll worry about that if it actually happens. For now, there's no good reason to mix the two.

It's like vegetarianism. I've been a vegetarian longer than I've been a Buddhist and I'm pretty committed to it. Yet I try very hard not to use my position as a sort-of-but-not-really-very famous Buddhist teacher-thing to push vegetarianism. This came up at one of the talks in Germany, where someone asked if it was necessary to stop eating meat to be a good Buddhist. I told him "no."


 Now if you're asking me or Brad Warner what political stripes you should have or what you should eat in order to be a good Buddhist you could be a better Buddhist simply by not asking that question.

But I want to point out that what I think Warner's trying to say is that Zen Buddhism is not representative of a single political philosophy any more than say, tennis or violin playing is in itself.  Can you use tennis or the violin or Zen Buddhism to reinforce certain political acts and aspirations?  Of course.  Should you?

This is where I must part company with the Venerable Warner: with the practice of Zen "we become more us," that is, we function more in harmony and in synch with our environment and those around us.  To those of us who are more political animals than others, our Zen will inform our political acts.   The good teacher will know when to teach, but his words will not necessarily have the baggage of Zen buzzwords intermixed with them.  The good parent will coax the children out of the burning house without religious appeals.

But it will all be Zen

11 comments:

Kyle Lovett said...

But certianly, even among liberal political types can't agree on an agenda. Sorry, have to disagree, politics and Zen don't mix, nor should they...ever.

Mumon said...

Kyle:

The don't mix, but they can't not mix.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I think I sorta kinda agree with all of the above.

Zen/Buddhism does change the way I experience and relate to the world. My political beliefs and actions are a part of that. It would be foolish to think that it would be possible to somehow compartmentalize that off, so that my practice would have no effect on them, or vice versa.

On the other hand, I think it would be equally foolish to believe that Zen/Buddhism inevitably leads everyone to the same place, politically, and much more foolish to assume that some political program is part and parcel of practicing Zen/Buddhism.

(Not to mention that it's not consistent with the evidence, since it is clearly observable that Zennies hold a very wide range of political positions.)

Wiseass Zen said...

Is it "wrong" for the Pat Robertson crowd to do it because you don't like the message or because you resent his using the pulpit to do it?
A Buddhist may firmly believe in a social cause or action because of his faith the same way a Christian, Jew, or Muslim is led in his life by his faith and beliefs. Take abortion or land settlements or the role of women in society, which gets influenced by faith. You can't say "oh this case is ok because it's a good, worthy cause, unlike that religious belief which I don't subscribe to".

Kyle Lovett said...

"(Not to mention that it's not consistent with the evidence, since it is clearly observable that Zennies hold a very wide range of political positions.)"

Agreed, unless one subscribes to the so-and-so is more enlighetened than the other guy, so his take on politics is more correct and authentic. I had a certain Roshi, a very political one, an espoused egaltarian communist, (speaking of himself), say this to me. Such bullshit.

Yes, indeed anyone can make anything political, but my main concern is that we don't scare folks away from Zen institutionalizing a political view. Damn, its hard enough getting people to come back a second or third week as it is.

@Wiseass - I agree.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Kyle, while I agree with you about the inadvisability of enshrining some political views as Zen and others as not Zen, I wonder a bit about your argumentation.

Is it really advisable to try to attract people to Zen, or to try to keep them coming back? There is a pretty strong tradition in Zen of the exact opposite, and I have a feeling there may be reasons for that tradition.

Kyle Lovett said...

"Is it really advisable to try to attract people to Zen, or to try to keep them coming back? There is a pretty strong tradition in Zen of the exact opposite, and I have a feeling there may be reasons for that tradition."

While we may not chase others into becoming Zennies, we certainly don't want to scare them off with unneeded political talk, that's all I'm saying.

Mumon said...

Wiseass:

Is it "wrong" for the Pat Robertson crowd to do it because you don't like the message or because you resent his using the pulpit to do it?

I've always opposed that crowd not because they use their religious trappings, but because their moral positions are odious.

Kyle:

That's not what I'm talking about, though traditionally within the Japanese Zen tradition, some familiarity with non-Zen philosophy has been considered to help round out one's practice, particularly Confucianism, and that's not an entirely apolitical philosophy (nor for that matter is Taoism).

Let me put my point another way - which I've actually made in the past. One consequence of this practice can be a bit more of a realistic view of one's self in one's environment and amongst others. The result of that can be the skillful use of one's actions and one's awareness in situations that might not otherwise have been the case. That does result in a greater opportunity to exercise one's own personal power, and once you get there, by definition you're talking political power. It's neither right nor left, but political power it indeed is.

It may also be (hell, I think it's undoubtedly) that those people who might be "scared off" by Zen practice are in fact scared off by the acts of practitioners' own personal power; it is the desperately determined that don't care about the door slammed on their leg and can wait outside the teacher's door for three days in the cold.

Mumon said...

BTW, thanks all for the good comments.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Kyle, hard to disagree with that. I would probably have walked out pretty soon had I sensed strong pressure for political conformism with my group. I like it particularly because I feel that we're all free to be ourselves, as long as we sit still when the bell rings.

Mumon said...

Yeah, though too much politics is unbalanced...